No American playwright — and perhaps no playwright ever — was as adept as Tennessee Williams at pulling apart the icky, sticky tangle of hurt that one furiously guarded secret can exact on a family. In the humid atmosphere of a Williams play, a single skeleton in the closet can level an entire clan for generations down the line, by way of recrimination, jealousy, resentment, obsession, addiction and, most of all, fear. Shit gets ugly when we tamp down the truth.
A new generation of playwrights, foremost among them Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), has taken up the Williams mantle, revealing in intimate details the greater and lesser consequences of keeping mum. Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 play Other Desert Cities, currently playing at Very Little Theatre under the direction of Claude Offenbacher, is among the latest entrants in this derby of dirty secrets. It is a well-written, finely observed work, and VLT does a good job with it, despite a few miscues.
Other Desert Cities is an intimate chamber piece for theater set in Palm Springs, Calif., where the Wyeth clan has gathered to celebrate Christmas. That the Wyeths — headed by retired actor-turned-diplomat Lyman (Bill Campbell) and his domineering wife, Polly (Christine Hanks) — are Jewish neo-cons who idolize Ronald Reagan cues you in to the first dark joke of the play. Also gathered for the holidays are daughter Brooke (Tracy Ilene Miller), whose new memoir threatens to out a devastating family secret, as well as their porn-addict son Trip (Brett French) and Polly’s sister Silda (Pamela Lehan-Siegel), a recently recovering alcoholic whose frantic energy recalls the nebbish comedies of Woody Allen.
What transpires over the course of Christmas Eve’s day is a slow burn of domestic angst, as the family members negotiate the potential toll of Brooke’s tell-all memoir. Baitz’s writing is quick-witted and often hilarious, though the final act tends to drag a bit too long. At times, Offenbacher’s staging is awkward, creating too much space among the actors for such a heated, argumentative play.
On the whole, however, VLT’s production achieves a heady momentum, as the family careens toward a shocking revelation. French and Miller are strong, but this play belongs to the older generation: Lehan-Siegel, Hanks and Campbell each crackle in their various representations of family dysfunction — especially Campbell, whose portrayal of the beleaguered, lumbering, endangered patriarch recalls the defeated glamour of Richard Burton. — Rick Levin
Other Desert Cities plays through Jan. 31 at the Very Little Theatre; $12-$17, 344-7751.