Any writer knows the temptation of using one's family for material. They're immediate and present. Their influence is intense and fundamental. Writers usually justify the act on the grounds of authorial honesty: Since the issues in one's life are forged, at least to a large extent, by one's parents and siblings, the writer dealing with stuff that really matters has no choice, or so she tells herself.
Then again, there are consequences, especially in a family built on the values of discretion.
Such a family, a well-heeled West Coast political family, makes up the cast of characters of Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities," an exceedingly juicy and shrewdly crafted drama very much in the honorable tradition of the well-made play, where devastating familial revelations unspool in the homestead alongside the rituals of a holiday.
In this case, the family seat has relocated in retirement from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, Calif., that unnatural and preternaturally calm locale, where a desert city has been made habitable by sundry amounts of cooling, watering, controlling, golfing and spending money.
Not unlike Osage County, Okla., was for playwright Tracy Letts, Palm Springs is a fine metaphor for Baitz of interloping humans, in this case sitting around shopping in a locale that demands conspicuous consumption just to keep the grass green. And it also allowed him to get in a few fine zingers that played very well on the oft-smug island of Manhattan.
"Other Desert Cities" was a big hit on Broadway in 2011, where it starred Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach and Rachel Griffiths in a stellar production.
This season, it is among the most produced plays at America's regional houses, which could be a sign that some portion of the big donors at theaters like the Goodman Theatre are worried that one of their offspring will one day write a book about them or commit some other embarrassing indiscretion, a fear that, come to think of it, is hardly limited to one particular socioeconomic group.
That's the inciting incident here: Brooke Wyeth (Tracy Michelle Arnold in director Henry Wishcamper's production), emotionally wrought scion of the political Wyeths, stalwarts of the Republican Party, has decided to write a tell-all memoir, focusing on the cold way her parents dispatched her leftist but emotionally needy brother, who apparently killed himself when Brooke was a child.
Manuscript in tow, Brooke has shown up for a family Christmas, horrifying Lyman and Polly Wyeth, parents who value their good name, and annoying her other brother, Trip (the sardonic John Hoogenakker), who has declared himself agnostic to all family disputes. Worse, Brooke has involved Polly's wacky sister Silda (Linda Kimbrough) in her project, perhaps allowing Silda a measure of revenge. Brooke sort of wants her parents blessing, but they find such an act anathema to their generation's value system. So how will all this play out?
Very entertainingly, actually. There certainly are a few contrivances to swallow in the structure, most notably the deadline-sparking, imminent publishing of an extract in The New Yorker, which no publisher would allow to happen so far ahead of the actual book.
But Baitz, who is clearly writing about a thinly disguised version of the Reagans, is not a trivial kind of scribe, even when playing with such a traditional structure. Smart and engaging throughout, this piece pulls in a variety of salient issues, including the clash of generations, the demise of just keeping one's mouth shut, the necessity of honesty, the old guard standing by while more radical elements take over their Republican Party and, most interesting of all, the ways we find to justify all the different ways we trample on other people to gain power or make a buck. "Other Desert Cities" is never dull for a moment.
Chelcie Ross, the Chicago-based actor who played Conrad Hilton on "Mad Men" but, alas, does too little stage work here, takes care of that all by himself. Ross' work as the appalled but reticent patriarch is nothing short of magnificent, offering a potent picture of a public man who has worked his fingers to the bone to keep private secrets private, only to discover late in life that one cannot control one's angry adult kids.
And Deanna Dunagan, who could play Nancy Reagan in a heartbeat, unleashes Polly's zingers with signature aplomb. She captures her malevolence and her fragility.
Overall, though, Wishcamper's production (using a stage design by Thomas Lynch that's very close to the Broadway original) lacks bite when it matters most.
Part of the problem here is that Arnold, a very fine and truthful actress, seems insufficiently scary-unhinged (and insufficiently like her mother) to make credible her resistance to parents who are, basically, begging her to stop. The character has a history of assorted traumas; too little of that past is on view in her present personality, Sure, she was taught to be polite, but we have to see what lies beneath.
Kimbrough has some of the same issues; this superb comic actress captures the humor and impotence of a sister on the sidelines, but not her rage. Actually, I think everyone on the stage could go much further.
This milquetoast dimension mostly, I think, flows from a directing issue: The staging, although sure-footed in most ways and perfectly respectable, hangs back just when all the serpentine sharp teeth should be bared. It also gets trapped in some strange (and obscuring) physical patterns, just as the most shocking revelation is coming down.
This is not a sentimental play and, as in most parent-child battles, there are no winners in the desert, unless you're the guy servicing all the sprinklers.
When: Through Feb. 17
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $25-$86 (subject to price increases) at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org