There's a climactic moment in Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities," now in a regional premiere at TheatreWorks, in which a long-hidden family secret is revealed. That secret packs a punch, but it undermines one of the play's main conflicts.
Troubled East Coast writer Brooke (Kate Turnbull) plans to publish the memoir that she has labored over for six years. It focuses on a trauma in her family's shared past.
The family, neatly divided politically, is gathered at the parents' sleek, ranch-style Palm Springs home (beautifully designed by Alexander Dodge) for Christmas 2004.
The well-connected Republican parents — Polly (a steely-eyed Kandis Chappell) and Lyman (a convincingly ambivalent James Sutorius), who is friendly with Ronald Reagan — fear that Brooke's exposé will embarrass them in their right-wing social circle.
They warn her that if she publishes, they will never forgive her.
Polly's plain-spoken, left-wing sister, Silda (the inimitable Julia Brothers), fresh from a stint in rehab, is Brooke's staunchest supporter.
Brooke's younger brother, Trip (a blithe Rod Brogan), the would-be peacemaker who's a pot-smoking TV producer, waffles. He says it's Brooke's best work, but she must be prepared for the consequences if she dares to publish.
The issue of whether writers should take on material that will hurt loved ones has been explored before onstage; it's an issue that will always plague writers and their families. And it's well-worth revisiting.
Also well-worth exploring and re-exploring are the conflicting political ideologies that can fracture a family.
But in Baitz's drama, the arguments for and against publication go on too long, and the red state/blue state bickering fails to offer fresh insights.
When Polly and Lyman reveal the big, game-changing secret, it's almost at the end of the play, a sort of deus ex machina, and there is no believable reason why they wouldn't have revealed it at the beginning of the play.
In fact, Lyman says he was always waiting for the right moment — and that moment clearly arrived an act and three-quarters ago.
Except that then the play would have caved in early on.
Despite Baitz's over-manipulation, his idiosyncratic and distinct characters are memorable. And this production, as directed by Richard Seer with attention to both the inherent humor and the tragedy, features an ensemble strong enough to outweigh the flaws in the plot.
REVIEWOther Desert Cities
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 15
Tickets: $19 to $73
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org