Thomas Wolfe had it all wrong. Not only can you go home again, but you must, as demonstrated in Jon Robin Baitz’s much-lauded 2011 hit Other Desert Cities, the season finale at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre (through Saturday, Aug. 9).
Brooke Wyeth (Piper Goodeve), an East Coast novelist given to flannel shirts, is returning to spend Christmas 2004 (during the invasion of Iraq) with her pro-war, conspicuously consuming conservative parents. After a period of inaction, Brooke brings the manuscript of her new novel, which deals with an ugly episode the family has been trying to repress. Much like Ronald and Nancy Reagan, often-cited offstage presences, bottle-blonde Polly (Susan Cella) and bearded Lyman Wyeth (Greg Bostwick) enjoyed middling but lucrative careers in Hollywood, and now live in affluent seclusion in a desert city outside Palm Springs, shut off from the rest of the world.
At first the barbed Red State-Blue State banter will remind many playgoers of agonizing Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, except that there are more secrets to be revealed than the Big One. Emphasizing or blunting the tensions are two other characters. Dowdy, alcoholic Silda (Catherine Weidner) hates her sister and former co-writer Polly for having denied her Jewish origins and turned herself into a WASP. Brooke’s younger brother Trip (Ryan Krause), a bit closer to his parents’ values, tries to mediate, but as a television producer, he’s not the quickest to distinguish reality from fiction.
With her complaints about “liberal whining,” Polly could be mistaken for an embodiment of all that playwright Baitz loathes. As Tony Kushner learned in Angels in America, when he demonized Roy Cohn he also gave him the best lines. Polly, full of surprises, is arguably the best-realized—and best-spoken– female character on the American stage in the last 10 years.
Other Desert Cities, co-starring actress Piper Goodeve, closes Hangar Theatre’s season with performances on Wednesday, Aug. 6, and Thursday, Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 8, 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Aug. 9, 3 and 8 p.m. Call (607) 273-8588 or (607) 273-4497 for details.
Header photo: Susan Cella and Greg Bostwick in Other Desert Cities. Photo by Rachel Philipson.