The Wyeths are the kind of family that pretend to be superficially progressive but still use vaguely racists terms like “Chink food” and proudly display photos of themselves having dinner with the Reagans. Still, mom Polly (Connie Coit), a retired writer of cheesy ’60s teen comedies and dad Leland (John S. Davies), a former actor-turned-politician, reared two troubled but free-thinking kids: Trip (Jeff Burleson), a giddy producer of trash TV and Brooke (Lydia Mackay), a novelist dismissed as a one-hit-wonder after 10 years without a new best seller. But Brooke has the making of a potboiler in her hands: A memoir about the family’s un-talked-about third child, Henry, whose youthful indiscretions 30 years earlier have scarred the Wyeths in ways they won’t admit.
If the plot of Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities sounds like a tense, O’Neill-esque family drama, you’re only half right. Set on a stressful Christmas Eve in 2004, when 9/11 was still a hot topic and the war in Iraq was still new, Act 2 is a largely laugh-free zone where secrets and domestic dynamics provide the grist for a dramatic finale. But it’s also a well-observed comic take on modern families in a joke-laden first half, thanks in big part to Cindee Mayfield as Aunt Silda, a boozy, free spirit.
Baitz is an accomplished writer of familial discord, as he proved on his nighttime quasi-soap Brothers & Sisters, and he has a gift for teasing out threads of backstory that ring true. The Wyeths might well be the Reagans (Brooke as Patti Davis, mocking her neo-con parents in public), but Leland is more like John Gavin, the minor Hollywood star who became an ambassador due to his connections. And Baitz throws out lines (suggesting lesbianism runs in the family) that perk up your ears despite no follow-through. It feels like the kinds of conversations real people might actually have over the holidays.
That might be due to the five actors in this production. They crackle — a tight-knit bunch, from the icy Nancy Reaganish Polly to the pot-smoking Trip (Burleson has the rabbity energy of Seth Rogen). Other Desert Cities doesn’t tie itself up too easily, but it does posit how truth and family do not always fit together.
Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St. Through Dec. 15. Theatre3Dallas.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 29, 2013.