Other Desert Cities finds voice in the end

Sally Wingert (Polly Wyeth) and Christian Conn (Trip Wyeth) in the Guthrie Theater's production of Other Desert Cities.
Sally Wingert (Polly Wyeth) and Christian Conn (Trip Wyeth) in the Guthrie Theater's production of Other Desert Cities.
Photo by Michael Brosilow

There's a disconnect between audience and the action onstage in the early scenes of Other Desert Cities, the Jon Robin Baitz drama that opened last weekend on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage. The political banter between the old guard California Republicans and their more liberal children feels tired and forced, and elicited only occasional titters and chuckles from the audience.

Once the production stopped playing at the battle of modern-day politics and generational differences and began examining secrets and guilt that have festered in the family for 30 years, it found its focus. That focus gave a solid cast, led by the always terrific Sally Wingert, a chance to truly tear into the material and take us down the rabbit hole of modern American life.

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The story mainly takes place in the Palm Springs home of Polly and Lyman Wyeth, two long-time movers in the California G.O.P. with ties to Hollywood (Lyman was an actor, Polly a scriptwriter). Their two children have come home for Christmas: Trip works in television; Brooke is a novelist who escaped the sunshine for the East Coast. Also around is Silda, Polly's sister (and former writing partner) who is drying out after falling off the wagon.

So, family with cracks in the foundation. A holiday. Time for plenty of confessions and accusations, and then making up over a turkey dinner, right? Baitz doesn't follow that script. Instead, Brooke has come home with a bombshell. The new book she has sold isn't a novel, it's a memoir. A memoir about the missing member of the family, brother Henry, who committed suicide 30 years ago after being implicated in a radical bombing that left a man dead.

That dramatic twist gives the rather stale family drama its legs, handing the actors something with more meat to dine on. Wingert's Polly is a brutal taskmaster, quick with a cutting comment to anyone within earshot. She's not a likable person, but Wingert forces us to understand Polly's view on life. 

David Anthony Brinkley's Lyman is a peacemaker -- the character was even an ambassador during the Reagan years -- who has finally come across a situation where he can't find peace. He feels betrayed by his daughter, and that shows up clearly in every word and movement from Brinkley.

On the outside, Michelle Barber's Silda is a breath of fresh air: a plain talking liberal who is used to the battle of wits with her sister. Still, there is an extra depth there as well that Barber uses to good effect in her best moments. Christian Conn does solid work with Trip, though the character doesn't have much to do except be a sometimes outsider voice amid the long-standing family arguments.

The weakest link here is Kelly McAndrew as Brooke. In many ways, the character is no more sympathetic than her mother, but McAndrew's whining delivery and lack of depth in the character makes her more grating than intriguing. There's never a sense of realization from her, even as her assumptions about life in the Wyeth home and the events of three decades past are shattered.

Peter Rothstein directs with his typical solid hand, giving the actors plenty of space to delve into their characters. This has mixed results in the end, partially because Baitz's script isn't as insightful as the playwright thinks it is, and partially due to the uneven quality in performances between Wingert and McAndrew. The play's final 20 minutes are focused on Wingert and Brinkley's characters, and that is where the show finally sings in its full voice. 


Other Desert Cities
Through March 24
Guthrie Theater
818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis
For information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online
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Guthrie Theater

818 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415


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