PITTSFIELD — On the surface, Polly and Lyman Wyeth — the pivotal characters in Jon Robin Baitz' "Other Desert Cities," which opened over the weekend in an effortful Town Players of Pittsfield production at the Whitney Center for the Arts — would appear to be living a life of graceful affluence and entitlement in their home in Palm Springs, Calif.
Lyman is a former movie actor who went to work as chairman of the GOP and was rewarded for his efforts by being named an ambassador by President Reagan.
In partnership with her alcoholic sister, Silda, Polly wrote a series of successful comedies for MGM in the 1960s and has since retreated to being a Republican fund-raiser and enjoying the fruits of retirement shopping, playing tennis and socializing at the country club; a once public couple living a private life.
Their youngest son, Trip, is the creator and showrunner for a popular reality TV series, "Jury of Your Peers," which tries small claims cases before a jury of celebrities. Their daughter, Brooke, has been living in New York where she's written a bestselling novel; worked as a freelance travel writer for a variety of prominent magazines; survived, after six months in rehab, a nervous breakdown and is on meds for clinical depression. Now, on Christmas Eve 2004, Brooke has come home, bringing with her the manuscript of a soon-to-be-published memoir that tracks the fall from family grace of her late brother Henry, whom she admired deeply — "he was my best friend," she says to her parents — and who committed suicide after having been implicated in the bombing of a U.
For Brooke, the book is partially a way of assembling pieces of a puzzle she cannot comprehend and foe which key pieces are missing. For their part, even before they read her manuscript, "Love and Mercy: A Memoir," Polly and Lyman accurately sense that, if published, the memoir — major portions of which will be published in a leading magazine before the full book is in stores — will expose a bombshell of a secret that the couple have held close, thrusting them back into a public view they have studiously been shunning. And the consequences, Polly warns Brooke, will be irreparable.
"How could I trust you?" Gayle Schechtman's Polly asks, somewhat shrilly. "How could I ever be in your presence, my dear? If you betrayed the trust of the family? A family that has so valued discretion and our good name in the past three decades? You would still be my daughter but the meaning of it would change."
As it turns out, Polly and Lyman's worst fears are realized when they finally read Brooke's memoir. They come to the conclusion that the only way they can prevent Brooke from going ahead with her publishing deal is to tell her — and Silda and Trip — the truth about Henry.
It's a potent mix and Baitz has stirred it with compassion, wit, insight, humor — elements that, despite their best efforts, elude director Kevin Paul Wixsom and his Town Players of Pittsfield cast. Their best simply isn't enough.
Much of the actors' work is undermined from the get-go with a dark, claustrophobic set that is more suggestive of a middle class apartment in Manhattan's Washington Heights or The Bronx in the 1950s and costuming that matches. From the look of it, the Wyeths are a couple of, at best, modest means.
But the performances — with one notable exception — also do a profound disservice to the complexities of these people and their nuanced relationships. At key moments, most particularly when the big reveal comes in the second act, we are treated to tear-laden histrionics. These are people — the urbane, acerbic, authoritative Polly; her somewhat more pliant but no less certain husband — who have held it together for a long time. As this scene in particular plays put, it should become clear just how much this secrecy has cost them.
Schechtman's Polly comes off through most of the evening as Brooke's dotty aunt; CJ Morgan's Lyman is like a deer caught in the headlights; Jackie DeGiorgis plays the conflicted Silda in a broad caricature; and it's difficult to get a read on what's truly going on behind the sorrowful expressions on Gabrielle Smachetti's face and apologetic tones in her voice in her portrayal of Brooke.
Jerry Greene, however, brings astute understanding and skill to his portrayal of Trip, the youngest of the Wyeth siblings, who has lived, he acknowledges, in Henry's shadow. In the evening's most effective and potent scene at the start of the second act, Trip, having read most of his sister's manuscript, defends their parents and vigorously calls Brooke to account for the portrait she's painted of them. Greene rises to the occasion Baitz provides and, as he does in each of his scenes, lends this production the authenticity and truth it so sorely misses throughout.
Baitz and the Wyeths deserve better.
What: "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Kevin Paul Wixsom
With: Gabrielle Smachetti, Gayle Schechtman, CJ Morgan, Jackie DeGiorgis, Jerry Greene
Who: Town Players of Pittsfield
Where: Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield
When: Through Oct. 23. Evenings — Thursday through Saturday at 8. Matinee — Sunday at 2
Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes — including one intermission
Tickets: $15 (general admission); $12 (seniors and students); $10 (Town Players members)
How: (413) 443-9279