Shifting Sands, Deftly Handled

By Bridget LeRoy
Craig Braun, Diana Marbury, Morgan Vaughan, and Vay David in the Hampton Theatre Company’s production of “Other Desert Cities.” Tom Kochie

    The Hampton Theatre Company, which has been bringing drama to the people since the mid-’80s, opened its 2013-14 season last week with Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” a meaty choice and hopefully the beginning of a winning season for the Quogue group.

    Mr. Baitz’s play, first performed at Lincoln Center in 2011 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year, is set on Christmas Eve 2004 at the Palm Springs home of Lyman and Polly Wyeth, a well-to-do Republican couple with connections in both Washington and Hollywood. Their children are visiting — Trip, a producer of a reality justice show starring old celebrities as jurors, and Brooke, who is returning for the first time in many years after a successful novel and a nervous breakdown. Also staying with the Wyeths is Silda, Polly’s sister, who is in early recovery (again) and just out of rehab.

    The lines are drawn early in the evening: The parents and children don’t see eye to eye politically. Silda is the “cool aunt,” still in touch with the Jewish heritage that Polly has packed away in favor of County Club beige, and Lyman, an actor turned ambassador, wants to avoid any unpleasantness and keep the peace between his wife and daughter.

    But peace will not be kept when Brooke brings several copies of her soon-to-be-published new book, which dredges up a deep and dark event from the family’s past — the terrorist actions and suicide of Lyman’s oldest son.

    To say more would give too much away. This play is about the slow reveals. Although there is much talk of judging and fairness, Mr. Baitz shows how hard it is to adjudicate a verdict when family is involved.

    The set, designed by Sean Marbury, is a loving tableau to desert design, complete with big stone fireplace, a wall of autographed pictures from Nancy and Ronnie and John Wayne, and windows showing the rocky and arid Coachella Valley beyond. It was gratifying to see Mr. Marbury pick up and wear the cloak left by his father, the brilliant designer Peter Marbury, with such grace and style.

    Diana Marbury, artistic director of H.T.C., offers a wonderful performance as Polly Wyeth, a woman comfortable in her habitat and easy to dismiss as a WASP, but with layers of both coolness and warmth underneath, and a need to protect her standing at any cost. “You can die from too much sensitivity in this world,” she says, a phrase with a meaning that warps as the evening progresses.

    Craig Braun as Lyman Wyeth gives a solid performance as the king of all he surveys, and why not? It’s December of 2004, Dubya’s in charge for another four years, and all is right in his world. But Mr. Braun brings layers of depth to Wyeth as well, especially toward the end of the evening.

    Vay David adds levity as Aunt Silda, a woman with dark secrets of her own, and Ian Bell offers bright spots as the youngest wise-cracking son in a dysfunctional family. But it is Morgan Vaughan as Brooke who steals the spotlight. Her heartbreaking portrayal of a woman on the verge — of losing her mind, of publishing another book, of telling her family what she really thinks of them — is brought to a head in the second act, and Ms. Vaughan’s performance is heartfelt and real every step of the way.

    Sarah Hunnewell directs this able ensemble with a deft touch. There is some awkward blocking in the beginning, but it sort of works with a family that feels awkward around each other anyway. And the message — that the truth shall set you free, no matter what that truth is — rings out loud and clear in Ms. Hunnewell’s production.

    Hampton Theatre Company’s “Other Desert Cities” runs through Nov. 10 at the Quogue Community Hall.