Grizzled and pickled (but currently sober) Silda (Judith Light) gives depressed Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) a pep talk, inspiring her niece to fight her toxic Republican parents and honor the memory of a lost radical-left brother: "Do it for him, for Henry," Silda implores. "Do not back down! You'll win, because you have ideas, and they only have fear!" It's a pithy line, an inspiring sentiment you might come across in something by Tony Kushner. Instead, it's stranded in the middle of Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, a family potboiler with delusions of political provocation, but which settles for bitchy one-liners and parent-child psychodrama. Brooke is a decent person and possibly a good novelist, but never an intellectual threat.
When I reviewed Baitz's play at Lincoln Center Theater in January, its patina of liberal smugness and subscriber-pandering glibness was hard to ignore—or stomach. Now that Griffiths and Light have joined the Broadway transfer, some of the I'm-acting-here stridency and cheap camp effects that Elizabeth Marvel and Linda Lavin brought to Brooke and Silda have given way to more soulful, layered work. Wistful and wan, Griffiths invites sympathy, and Light imbues Silda with a drunk's hard edge. You care more about the fact that Brooke has written a tell-all memoir about her ex-Hollywood parents Lyman (Stacy Keach) and Polly (Stockard Channing), who quit the movies to become power brokers in the California GOP. Not home for the holidays is Henry, the absent and possibly dead eldest son, who got mixed up with anti-Vietnam terror in the 1970s. New York–based Brooke visits her loved ones in Palm Springs one Christmas bearing the manuscript, and soon, jolly barbs about East Coast weather give way to emotional blackmail and melodramatic family secrets. Joe Mantello directs with customary slickness, but what he and Baitz really need is some of Brooke's purportedly hot ideas.—David Cote
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