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Terrific Performances Redeem Uneven 'Other Desert Cities'

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The commingling of the political and the personal in a play is a delicate business. A political piece, by its nature, is message-heavy, whereas most drama concerns the subtleties of relationships. An occasional show can pull off this mixture brilliantly, such as Angels in America, but often the results can be uneven. Jon Robin Baitz's new play, Other Desert Cities, doesn't quite get the balance right, but the performances in the new production at the Taper are so stellar I'd recommend it regardless.

Writer Brooke Wyeth (Robin Weigert) has returned to her parents' home in Palm Springs for a holiday visit, and initially everyone is happy to see her. Her ex-movie star turned ambassador father, Lyman (Robert Foxworth), is protective of her, concerned she hasn't fully recovered from a serious depression years before. Her domineering mother Polly (JoBeth Williams) and her TV producer brother Trip (Michael Weston) attempt to force a normal holiday vibe upon the visit, but free-spirited alcoholic aunt Silda (Jeannie Berlin) knows things are not normal at all. Brooke has a bombshell to drop on the family, but they have secrets of their own.

Weigert gives her role a low-key, jokey, sort of "Rachel Maddow at home" feel until things get more serious, when she demonstrates Brooke's underlying strength. Her reaction to a late piece of devastating news is particularly memorable, her face becoming a mask of utter desolation, a personification of tragedy. Williams is the revelation here as Polly, exquisitely mean as the bullying mom, a country club matron used to swinging her will about like a bludgeon. It's an amazing performance.

Foxworth is superb as Lyman, perfectly sympathetic and warm until he feels threatened. His work with Weigert feels sad and true. Weston gets the least fleshed-out role as Trip, but he makes the most of it, arguing and defending everybody's sides until he finally decides upon his own. Berlin is quite funny as Silda, and if she gets more political observations disguised as dialogue than the other actors, she manages to put them over anyway.

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Robert Egan's direction is naturalistic and focuses quietly and effectively on the Wyeth family blustering and denying the truth until they are finally face-to-face with it. Baitz is skilled at dialogue and charting familial armageddons. Much of Polly's rants are quotable, such as her scathing description of Brooke: "Families are terrorized by their weakest member." Unfortunately the material concerning 80s Republicans and the frequent name-drops about "Ron and Nancy" feels like window dressing, but thankfully the drama beneath is solid.

"Other Desert Cities" plays at the Mark Taper Forum through Jan. 6. Tickets are available online.