Sunday, April 8, 2012

Other Desert Cities Review

Saw Other Desert Cities on Broadway last night, and while I appreciate the superb performances by all the principles, I'd like to address the underlying message of the great "reveal" in the second act.

SPOILER ALERT: If you intend to see ODC, read no further. I discuss the surprise twist in the plot.

Other reviewers here have noted the apparent time warp in the play which is set in 2004 but appears to deal with events from the Viet Nam War era. Let's put that aside for a moment and agree that this is a play about the political choices the parents have made and the repercussions of those choices on their children.

So we have the parents, Lyman (Stacy Keach) and Polly (Stockard Channing), Reaganesque conservative Republicans, who by omission or commission have supported the NeoCon military agenda for the last 40 years. Hence the conflating of Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Pitted against them for dramatic purposes are their son Trip, daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) and Polly's sister, Silda (Judith Light). Trip got mixed up in an anti-war protest gone wrong decades ago. Brooke has written a memoir about Trip’s ultimate suicide which paints her parents and their NeoCon friends in a negative light. Silda is a burn-out case whose main function is to represent the loyal Liberal opposition to the parents' conservatism. So far so good. Let the political repartee begin.

The conflict revolves around Brooke’s decision to publish her tell-all memoire before her parents, whom she blames for not supporting Trip in his hour of need, have shuffled off this mortal coil. So back and forth we go, blaming the parents, critiquing the daughter's version of events, outing the sister’s hypocrisy and so on.

The big surprise comes at the end when Lyman reveals that he didn’t turn his back on his fugitive son, but in fact helped him to escape to Canada while faking a suicide. Trip is still alive and has been all these years, while his sister struggled with a nervous breakdown precipitated by his death! So the "evil" NeoCon-supporting parents are shown to be heroic defenders of their war-protesting son, though their decision to keep it secret from their daughter is open to criticism.

My problem with this plot device is that we are encouraged to give Lyman and Polly a pass for their decades of conservative activism, because they supported their son after all. What is missing is a final speech from Brooke where she points out that Trip might not have become involved in anti-war activities in the first place if people like his parents hadn’t enabled the US war mongers to pursue their militaristic agendas. Rather than challenge the political status quo themselves, the parent’s solution is to “disappear” their son, whose innocence in the protest-related death at the core of the conflict is asserted at the very end of the play. By sending their son off to Canada, the parents bury their own complicity in the militaristic agenda of their country. Rather than absolving the parents, Other Desert Cities could have detailed the proper indictment of their conservative world view. That is the faulty message of Other Desert Cities and the reason why Jon Baitz’s play ultimately fails as a dramatic set piece.

No comments: