“Write as if your parents are dead.” That was Philip Roth’s tip to Ian McEwan when the younger novelist was just starting out. It sounds cold-blooded, but if you’re trying to transmute your personal experience into art, you can’t worry about hurting mom’s feelings. The things normal people do to maintain peace in their families—overlook shortcomings, keep secrets to themselves—are precisely the things a writer worth reading can’t do.
Those who take Roth’s advice may be seen as ill-mannered oversharers at best, sneaks and thieves at worst. Undoubtedly, there’s something chilly about viewing loved ones as “material.” But what if the results are really good? Eugene O’Neill had the decency to lock away his autobiographical—and devastating—Long Day’s Journey Into Night, leaving instructions that it only be published 25 years after his death and never staged. I, for one, am glad his widow ignored his wishes, however bad the play makes his family look.
The problem of writers and their families is central to Jon Robin Baitz‘s Other Desert Cities, now receiving a witty, satisfying production at Goodman Theatre, under the direction of Henry Wishcamper. Brooke Wyeth (a brittle yet tangy Tracy Michelle Arnold) is a talented writer whose follow-up to her first novel was a six-year bout of depression. She clawed her way out of it by writing a memoir about the most painful episode in her family’s past: the meltdown and apparent suicide of her brother Henry. Now, unwisely disregarding Roth’s rule, she’s come to her parents’ Desert Modern split-level in Palm Springs, seeking their approval to publish.
Brooke’s parents, Polly and Lyman, are country-club Californians straight out of a Joan Didion essay. They refer to the Reagans as “Ron and Nancy”—and, indeed, have a similar background as movie people turned respectable. Lyman is a former film actor whose service to the GOP earned him an ambassadorship. Polly wrote screenplays before becoming a society matron.
As Lyman, Chelcie Ross is tall and toothy enough to pass as an erstwhile movie star; the air he projects—gentle and reasonable, yet unyielding when he needs to be—suggests a diplomat of some efficacy. Deanna Dunagan, meanwhile, fully embodies the description Baitz gives of Polly in the stage directions: “elegant and forthright and whip-smart.” With her petite frame and immovable hairdo, she even looks something like Nancy Reagan.
She’s also hilarious. Baitz has given Polly a gimlet eye and a great capacity for contempt—a recipe for zingers if there ever was one. “I think living on the east coast has given you the impression that sarcasm is alluring and charming,” she tells Brooke. “It is not. Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals.”
To make sure things get nice and heated, Baitz throws in Polly’s politically liberal sister Silda (a jittery Linda Kimbrough), just back from rehab. After a life spent under Polly’s thumb, she’s itching for revolution. The peacekeeper in the family is Brooke’s younger brother Trip (John Hoogenakker), the happy-go-lucky producer of a reality show called Jury of Your Peers (i.e, adjudicating with the stars).
Henry is the absent presence—the gaping hole in the family psyche that Lyman and Polly don’t want to discuss. In the early 1970s, as Vietnam-era radicalism was curdling into events like the Patty Hearst kidnapping, Henry fell out of his well-heeled right-wing world and into a cult preaching liberation through drugs and violence. Implicated in a fatal bombing at an army recruiting station, he tried to take refuge at home, but ran off when Lyman called the police. His clothes were eventually found on the deck of a night ferry in Seattle, along with a suicide note detailing his plan to drown himself in the Pacific. The result for his parents was heartache and social exile.
When Brooke announces that Henry’s story is the subject of her book, her parents take it like a fist to the gut. It’s not just that they object to reopening old wounds and publicizing their grief. They also sense something reductive and reckless in Brooke’s view of things. She’s bound to be partial in both senses of the word—biased and incomplete.
Further revelations raise still more questions about the nature of the tale and who has the right to tell it. Baitz clearly sympathizes with Brooke’s position that a writer must write even if it causes pain to those closest to her. He doesn’t forget, though, that her subjects have their own version of events. Baitz indulges in a few plot contrivances and tends to preach to the choir regarding the perfidy of the George W. Bush administration, yet his play makes a bold and sharp-witted sally into the minefield of family myth. It stings as much as it zings.