In ‘Other Desert Cities,’ a Family History Lush in Secrets

When Jon Robin Baitz’s family drama “Other Desert Cities” closed on Broadway last June, it concluded a strong run and had been showered with high praise for showcasing its creator’s talents: a seven-month stint at Lincoln Center (following a transfer from off-Broadway), five Tony Award nominations, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play.

But for all of that, Baitz and his work may be getting more attention from a wider national audience now.

The play has been produced at a number of regional theaters around the country over the past year — there will have been at least 20 productions of the show by 2014 — including Los Angeles, Chicago and most recently in Denver and Washington, D.C., where last week the Arena Stage production debuted to strong reviews. It’s playing there until May 26.

“Other Desert Cities” tells the story of the fictional Wyeth family — a clan led at the top by a mother and father highly regarded in old Hollywood circles and admired by Republicans for their service to and friendship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan in their heyday. The play explores the dark family secrets that threaten to destroy external and internal perceptions about the life the members lead.

Family drama is well-traversed territory, but Baitz, 51, has laced the story with humor and wit, political commentary (setting it in 2004 after the Iraq War is underway), sharp dialogue and an affecting premise: The grown daughter, Brooke, a writer who has suffered a nervous breakdown, has just written a memoir about her life, her parents and their role in the tragic loss of her brother. But she has not told her parents, Polly and Lyman, of her plans to publish the memoir until the publication date nears while on a Christmas visit back home.

Among many other questions raised in the play, Baitz asks whether Brooke has a greater obligation to her family (who saved her during her darkest moments) or to the truth and to her work as a writer.

For Baitz, writing “Other Desert Cities” turned out to be a great relief after his bad experience working in television on “Brothers & Sisters,” a series he created. (He’s now back at work on a miniseries for NBC, so he hasn’t given up on the medium yet.)

Jeff sat down with Baitz when he came to town for the Arena Stage opening. (See video above.)

Below is a scene from the Arena Stage production of “Other Desert Cities.” Daughter Brooke (Emily Donahoe) confronts her mother Polly (Helen Carey) and father Lyman (Larry Bryggman) about her memoir as they warn her about the pain she may cause for all.

The Lincoln Center production was widely acclaimed and featured a cast that included Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths and Stacy Keach. Here’s a scene in which Brooke explains what was behind her decision to write the book. (Thank you, Wiki and Lincoln Center archives.)

A transcript of Jeff’s conversation with Baitz is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat again. I’m Jeffrey Brown. “Other Desert Cities,” the title refers to a roadside sign that directs drivers to exit at Palm Springs, Calif., or to head onto other desert cities. The play is a family drama that does indeed take its characters and audience to some other strange and dark places, with a lot of humor along the way. It’s also very much set in our own time amid current events. After a Broadway run, the play has been produced in several major theaters around the county, now at Arena Stage here in Washington. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz, welcome.

JON ROBIN BAITZ: Thank you, thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The adult daughter of prominent parents comes home for Christmas and says, I’ve written a memoir, and it has some terrible secrets, right? I’m wondering right away, is this based on some — because we live in an age of memoirs, right — so I thought right away, where did the idea come from?

JON ROBIN BAITZ: I think it came from my sense of trying to either expiate or make sense of my life as a writer up until now and the potential damage that I’ve been party to or done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? So your sense of yourself as a writer?

JON ROBIN BAITZ: I think so. It reached a point where I wondered about the hubris in the act of writing about people who are actually living beings in some way, and I thought so many people do this and so few people get to respond to it really. There are so many great memoirs and they’re also absolutely unreliable in the fundamental sense. I think I was having a kind of low-level crisis of consciousness, but not the one where you say, I don’t want to do this ever again. I just wanted to figure it out.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you figured out a way to use it.


JEFFREY BROWN: In it’s a core it’s a family drama, it’s well trod territory. How do you make that new or fresh?

JON ROBIN BAITZ: In this case, I sort of thought of the American family in some way. I had created this TV show, “Brothers & Sisters,” and I had tried to make that a TV show about a divided family politically and their ongoing argument about what America meant. I didn’t get to do that really on the TV show. I had all these notions about politics and children who have very divergent politics from their parents, and it kind of all came up as, I guess, a template in some way.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the parents in this case are Republican, friends of Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

JON ROBIN BAITZ: They’re old-school, California, court of Ron and Nancy Reagan Republicans.

JEFFREY BROWN: But then we’re very much in this decade or the past decade, and the Iraq War is going, so I’m interested — I mean, here we are at a news program and we’re looking at these events all the time — but the culture goes on, arts respond. Did you want to address? Did you want to get into bigger issues?

JON ROBIN BAITZ: Well, one of the reasons it’s called “Other Desert Cities” is because I am thinking about, as someone says in the play, a war going on thousands of miles away in another desert. It had occurred to me that there had a been of kind of thing that I’m most interested in the world called complacency. There had been a division politically in which the neocons very quickly supplanted older voices within the GOP, and a lot of people I knew who were more conservative had not really taken it in. And I realized though their concerns were actually about their economic well-being really. But the party was different from the one. And that’s sort of the one that was in power at the time, and I think that was a big part of thinking in the play.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you are writing a play, and so you have to avoid making it a political tract in some sense.

JON ROBIN BAITZ: No, there is no lecture. I think the idea of going to the theater to be harangued, particularly liberal pieties, I’d rather drink hemlock. And a milkshake.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t want to give the story away, the plot of what happens here. But the layers of secrets that unfold you through the course of this, where the person who has written the memoir thinks she knows the story, thinks she knows her own parents and then comes to realize that there’s another whole layer here that she has no clue. That goes to what you were talking about what we think we know about memoirs.

JON ROBIN BAITZ: And what we think we know about everybody and the absolute unknowableness of things. A lot of that also has to do with — I think as a younger writer I was interested in quietly indicting older people, but now, you know —

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re more understanding?

JON ROBIN BAITZ: Yeah, well, you turn 50 and everything sort of — I’ve become so much more like my father, who’s this really a gentleman who grew up here in Washington, D.C. I see things from their point of view so much more often than I don’t now. This thing of manners being very important. So she gets a lot of it slightly wrong and has to deal with that. It’s a play in some way about humility.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is this like for you now? It was in New York, it’s on Broadway, and then now it’s out in the country, a lot of different productions. Does it still feel like your baby or you interested in how it gets produced in different ways, different actors?

JON ROBIN BAITZ: I try not to go very often to other productions. This is the second one I’ve seen, and there’s been like 20 or something.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is just the second one?

JON ROBIN BAITZ: Yeah, that I’ve been to.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why do you —

JON ROBIN BAITZ: Because I want A) would like to be working on new things, which is what I’m doing, but B) I don’t want to get in the way of people’s good time. It can be a bummer to have the playwright snooping around your production judging quietly or something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of working on other things, finally, you were referring to your television experience. You told me that earlier that it was not the best experience.

JON ROBIN BAITZ: No, it was really not. It was not fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re going back to television.

JON ROBIN BAITZ: I am, but in a much more discreet way. There’s only eight episodes. I’m doing a miniseries for NBC. There’s only eight epodes. They’re all written by me. It can’t go on. It can’t go on forever. I can’t be like Sisyphus pushing a rock.

JEFFREY BROWN: And working in a different medium like that, is that interesting?

JON ROBIN BAITZ: TV? Doing a miniseries, yeah, it’s a lot of interesting mathematics to telling a story over time, which I like. Each episode in it is told from another character’s point of view about the same event. So it’s sort of fun to be able to, as I like to say, shift your weight occasionally and do something else, you know, other than just write plays.

JEFFREY BROWN: Although that’s not —

JON ROBIN BAITZ: I love writing plays. I do. I do. I wouldn’t really know how to do many other things. I could work behind the counter of a coffee shop or GAP Kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: Keep doing it. “Other Desert Cities” is now at Arena Stage in Washington and around the country. Jon Robin Baitz, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

JON ROBIN BAITZ: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thanks for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.