It's Christmas Eve at Lyman and Polly Wyeth's Palm Springs home, and it's about as merry as a dust storm. Daughter Brooke has come home for the first time in six years with quite a present for the folks: a soon-to-be-published memoir that will reopen the lid clamped down on a dark family tragedy and, as Lyman and Polly see it, make them headliners in the tabloid press.
Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, on stage at The Old Globe, is a clenched-teeth family drama swathed in political overtones. It's set in 2004, shortly after Dubya's re-election, and right-wing Lyman (Robert Foxworth) and Polly (Kandis Chappell) are at odds with "lefty" Brooke (Dana Green) on a philosophical basis even before she raises the subject of her new book. As such, there's a lot of sociopolitical rhetoric flying from both sides, little of which we haven't heard before.
The unrelenting tension in the Wyeth living room (a masterful Palm Springs set conceived by Alexander Dodge) between a tormented father, an angry and disillusioned mother and a daughter in the throes of passion and pain is what makes Other Desert Cities the rich theatrical experience that it is. Foxworth inhabits every bit of Lyman's steeliness and charisma (he's an ex-movie-star-turned-politician), and even without speaking he compels our attention, as when he brushes away Brooke's conciliatory embrace.
On hand for mostly comic relief are the obviously named brother Trip (Andy Bean), who produces a cheesy reality-TV show and breaks out the stash of pot, and Polly's wise-cracking sister Silda (Robin Pearson Rose). Each gets moments of gravitas and implied wisdom as to the family crisis, but Other Desert Cities is at heart about Lyman, Polly, Brooke and the specter of Henry, the radical son who, after implication in a bombing, evidently committed suicide.
The Act 2 revelations are not as surprising as intended, but we're consumed by this scarred family's eruptions and catharses. The entire cast is in top form, and director Richard Seer doesn't allow the proceedings to dissolve into yet another dysfunctional family story. Playwright Baitz understood the political as well as personal ramifications of the Wyeths' plight, and so do we.
Other Desert Cities runs through June 2 at The Old Globe Theatre. $29 and up. oldglobe.org
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: Six adults play quirky middle-school students in a musical comedy that spans the length of a spelling contest. Opens May 10 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
Be a Good Little Widow: In a melancholy comedy, a young woman's unsatisfying marriage ends early when her husband dies, leaving her to cope with her heard-to-please mother-in-law and learn a thing or two about herself. Opens May 11 at The Old Globe Theatre's Sheryl and Harvey White Stage in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo: Ion Theatre Company explores the Iraq war through a story about two American soldiers and a talking tiger freed from the Baghdad Zoo. Opens May 10 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
Seascape: Tension surrounds a long-married couple when they encounter a couple of human-size, talking reptiles on the beach in Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Opens May 10 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
Sixty Minute Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream: New Village Arts Theatre carves the Bard's classic comedy down to one hour and stages it with just six actors. Runs May 10 and 12 in the Schulman Auditorium at the Dove Library in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
The Sound of Music: Reportedly, rolling hills, animated by music, come to life in a story about an aspiring nun and an Austrian family at the onset of World War II. Presented by San Diego Musical Theatre, it opens May 10 at the Birch North Park Theatre. sdmt.org
Zombie Prom: A high-school rebel, who committed suicide after his girl reluctantly dumped him, comes back to life to reunite with his true love. It's a musical. Opens May 10 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando. pickwickplayers.net
Pageant : You pick the winner in a musical comedy about a beauty contest. Through May 12 at the Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
Coffee Shop Chronicles : Seven 10-minute plays by San Diego playwrights will be performed—simultaneously and rotated so audiences can see them all—in two dining rooms at The Big Kitchen in South Park. Desert included. Runs May 3, 10 and 15 (just added). newplaycafe.com
An Ideal Husband : Oscar Wilde's play, set in 1890s London, follows a scheming woman's attempt to blackmail a member of the House of Commons. Through May 19 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido. patioplayhouse.com
I Love My Computer Because My Friends Live in It : The new musical by Broadway Vista co-owner Randall Hickman focuses on five women and their electronic-communication and social-media exploits. Through June 1 at the Broadway Theatre in Vista. broadwayvista.com
Other Desert Cities : A novelist visits her famous parents in Palm Springs amid her plans to publish a memoir that unearths an unpleasant family secret. Through June 2 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Crime Pays : A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net