Those annual holiday get-togethers can be such a pain.
Especially when the gift exchange includes a dark family secret, buried for decades, that’s about to be exhumed.
That’s the setup, but hardly the whole story, in “Other Desert Cities,” which wraps up Las Vegas Little Theatre’s mainstage season with a 12-performance run starting Friday.
A Pulitzer Prize finalist, Jon Robin Baitz’s drama takes its title from a sign on the eastbound Interstate 10 near Palm Springs, Calif., which points the way to Indio and “other Desert Cities” in the Coachella Valley.
It’s 2004 (when the Coachella Festival was in its infancy) and George W. Bush has just been re-elected to the presidency.
Speaking of Republican presidents, Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s inner circle once included the Wyeths, Lyman (played by Beni Talley) and Polly (Marlena Shapiro) — whose Palm Springs home is about to be invaded by other family members for Christmas.
There’s Polly’s sister Silda (Kim Glover), her former screenwriting partner at MGM in the 1960s.
Silda may be fresh out of rehab — but she’s hardly fresh out of liberal quips with which to goad her conservative sister and brother-in-law, a former actor.
Polly and Lyman’s TV producer son Trip (Aaron Barry) has made the trip from L.A.
And, after six years as a no-show, daughter Brooke (Mary Foresta) finally turns up, from the East Coast, with news of an at-long-last follow-up to her literary debut: a memoir that dredges up a tragic incident from the family’s past. There’s a bonus: an excerpt from Brooke’s memoir is set to be published in the New Yorker.
All of which sets the stage for “30 years of pain that’s come to a head,” according to Sean Critchfield, who’s directing the Little Theatre production.
“It is definitely a drama,” Critchfield says of Baitz’s play. “But I’m a firm believer that once you get a dramatic script, you look for the comedy in it.”
As a result, the play’s first act is “very charming, very witty,” he notes.
Besides, it’s Christmas, and everyone’s trying to be good. Except, perhaps, for Silda.
Critchfield describes her as “the Lucille Ball character — she’s a loose cannon, and she’s a riot.” (Judith Light won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Silda during the play’s Broadway run.)
For example, when Polly insists that “the only way to get someone not to be an invalid is to refuse to treat them as such,” Silda retorts, “And there it is, folks: the entire GOP platform in a nutshell.”
Trip pleads for peace, or at least a cease-fire, warning that such early talk of politics will result in the family gathering degenerating into “stiff-upper-lip thermonuclear family war.”
But when Brooke announces her revelations, the political gives way to the personal, and Baitz’s play zeros in to “capture that catharsis,” Critchfield explains.
Sure, it’s an “intense character portrait” of “a dysfunctional family, but aren’t we all?” he contends.
Besides, “there’s enough family fun in it, with the relationships” among the various characters, to keep things on the lighter side, Critchfield says — at least until everything “starts to circle the drain.”
Overall, “the balance between comedy and intense family drama has been fine-tuned in richly satisfying ways,” according to a Hollywood Reporter review of the Broadway production, which followed the play’s off-Broadway debut.
In the process of moving to Broadway, “Other Desert Cities” became “the most thoroughly integrated and sustained work from Mr. Baitz, who had been regarded as a promising wunderkind for long past his sell-by date,” wrote New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, who noted the play had “settled comfortably into its own skin, which makes its characters’ discomfort all the more palpable.”
And that discomfort — amid all those binding family ties — makes “Other Desert Cities” very “relatable,” Critchfield says. “Anyone that comes to see it will see elements” of their own families, he concludes, and their own lives.
Contact reporter Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.