Leo Tolstoy may have been right when he said that unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way, but he was wrong about happy families all resembling one another. Or perhaps he would have amended his feelings if he had seen Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” a close look at a family of elite Californians coming to grips with their fall from grace and their long climb back to it.
Playing through May 26 at Arena Stage, the audience looks on as members of the unhappy Wyeth family — guarded, angry, resentful, damaged and incredibly funny — have their emotional bones reset, journeying from toxic judgment of one another to the beginnings of mutual respect and understanding.
This is a play for those who enjoy wit and political maneuvering, and for those who understand just how critical political identity is.
The family breaks down like this: Lyman (Larry Bryggman) and Polly Wyeth (Helen Cary) are the parents. They are rather isolated from their Palm Springs community and keep firmly to their circle of California GOP elite, the likes of which have seen their political fortunes soar during the Reagan Revolution — the Wyeths were friends with Ron and Nancy — and crash and burn in the Golden State’s contemporary culture.
The show opens on Christmas Eve; their left-leaning daughter Brooke (Emily Donahoe) has come home to Palm Springs after a six-year absence. She is a writer who has just completed and sold her second book.
Mixed into this familial cocktail is Trip (Scott Drummond), the youngest Wyeth, who is a Los Angeles-based reality television producer. He is loving, protective and quietly resentful of his parents and sister.
Finally, there is the recently sober, eccentric Silda Grauman (Martha Hackett), Polly’s caustically funny, damaged sister.
Relatively quickly, the audience realizes that these five adults — none of them are particularly young — have spent the better part of their lives ignoring, judging and resenting each other.
Baitz’s dialogue is finely wrought and the pace of the action, to the extent that there is any real action, is tightly wound and unravels at the key points quickly and rather beautifully.
Brooke is in Palm Springs after her extended exile with a memoir in tow. She is also in recovery from massive depression that spanned years and left her hospitalized. The memoir reveals many family secrets and it was composed without her entire family’s input. The real research Brooke conducts for the memoir is through reading her own diaries and consulting with Silda, a person with her own agenda.
She demolishes her parents in the memoir, without ever trying to speak to them and draw them out. This method might be OK, Trip tells her, but it is not without a pretty significant cost.
“You have to accept the consequences of ‘art over life’, which in this case is likely to be losing the trust of the people you love, for the sake of these opinions, these bewildering portraits of these people who seem totally unrecognizable to me,” the reality TV producer, of all people, says to her.
In this Arena production, the stand-out is Carey’s fearless Polly. She is at turns funny, hard, broken, scared and wildly in love with her family. Polly wants nothing more than to repair each damaged member, mainly by simply demanding they be OK.
“Yes, I don’t like weakness. I’ve tried to push her, to be hard on her so that she wouldn’t sink,” Polly says of her daughter. “I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. You can die from too much sensitivity in this world.”
The dialogue is well-served from Baitz, one of the creators of the TV hit “Brothers and Sisters,” a show that had no shortage of family political drama.
Baitz has a strong background in television’s most verbal era. He was also the writer of “The West Wing” episode “The Long Goodbye,” where Allison Janney’s character, C.J. Cregg, travels to her Ohio hometown to face the reality of her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. It was another story of a prodigal daughter who must go home after a lengthy absence to deal with a painful family secret.
Thematically at least, “Other Desert Cities” is similar to these other popular works by Baitz, but also more firmly grounded in post-9/11 America.
Early in the first act, for example, Trip uses the terrorist attack as part of his defense for having a job as a reality show producer.
“Funny is all we have left. Yes! They flew planes into buildings! People need funny,” he says to his father. “I can’t argue with you about this, if you fail to see the merit in what I do. That’s your loss, all of you. We can’t all be hopelessly highbrow like Brooke. Some of us have to actually make money.”
Brooke makes a snide remark about weapons of mass destruction. Polly references Colin Powell. Everyone talks about Ron and Nancy Reagan.
For theater nerds, the Wyeth family story will be reminiscent of classic Greek theater. Indeed, the sunken round of the stage mirrors the architecture of the ancient amphitheaters.
“A lot of people get through the entirety of their lives, pretending,” Lyman says to his daughter. “At a certain point, it’s not the worst thing to do.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she replies. “I tried to live that way, and I just can’t. I need to actually talk about it.”
In the end, the catharsis through storytelling helps them all move on.