First Nighter: Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" is Red-Hot

In the living-room of the luxurious Palm Springs home where Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities takes place, a long, curved stone wall looms upstage. It's hard to think John Lee Beatty, who designs the most ravishing residences for New York City's stages, doesn't intend this silent omen to reflect the stonewalling that becomes the playwright's main -- extremely meaty -- subject.

On the other hand, it may be that Beatty means nothing pointed about the appearance on the current Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse set of not one, not two but three chaises longues, which do hint at the reclining so regularly practiced by voluptuary Romans as their civilization advanced down history's slippery slope.

Then again, maybe the designer did have that analogy in mind. The play--a drawing-room comedy that rapidly transforms into a drawing-room drama -- is like all Baitz's previous, almost uniformly superlative works. It's about the tottering fortunes of the rich, intelligent and borderline (or way-past-the-borderline) corrupt.

The catalyst for the proceedings, which unfold on Christmas Eve, 2004 and jump to March, 2010 at the very finish, is the just-sold manuscript Brooke Wyeth (Elizabeth Marvel) brings home for her parents, Polly (Stockard Channing) and Lyman (Stacy Keach), to read and, if her hopes are realized, sign off on. Those hopes are destined to be dashed, because the tome -- which she's described as a novel (a follow-up, she's implied, to a first novel published six years earlier)--isn't that.

It's a memoir called "Love and Mercy" (after Brian Wilson's poignant song) in which Brooke recounts the events leading up to, through and following her deceased brother Henry's involvement in a highly publicized and inflammatory anti-Vietnam War incident. Knowing to expect resistance, she figures on enlisting as confederates her young brother Trip (Thomas Sadoski), who produces a courtroom reality show named Jury of Your Peers, and in-alcoholic-recovery aunt and Polly's sister and former screenwriting partner Silda Grauman (Linda Lavin).

Though Beatty also includes -- per Baitz's request -- a Scandinavian-style fireplace, the heat radiated by the play results from the friction between and among family members who harbor conflicting memories of the hugely troubled past. These are relatives who share love and hate so complexly intermingled it's impossible to tell which is which. Like all Baitz's characters, they express themselves in witticisms that are sometimes sincere, sometimes cynical but forever keep them hanging, often perilously, on each other's every lacerating, healing word.

Brooke -- who lives in the East because she finds California life immeasurably stultifying but who hasn't escaped a near-suicidal depression in her chosen surroundings -- objects vehemently to her parent's Reagan Republican standards. They lead existences so in step with their GOP beliefs that they've long counted Ronald and Nancy Reagan as close friends. In Brooke's view, political leanings were the reason for Polly and Lyman cruelly rejecting Henry, who'd become an activist hippie, using drugs that eventually unsettled his mind. Her memoir is an attempt to exorcise her demons by exposing Wyeth family life to the world.

Polly, who declares she dislikes "weakness," believes in her own patriotism. Before and after reading what Brook claims is something unvarnished, she refuses outright to condone a piece of literature--no matter how well written--certain to reopen wounds, sure to subject the family to further ostracism and, in the last analysis, is plain and simple disloyalty. Lyman--a faded Paramount Studios action star suffering his own anomie--prefers not to make any move that will harm his possibly still-unstable daughter.

For their part, Silda, forever ready to count on her sister's pulling her through dark periods -- and at the same time resentful of it -- and Trip, who sees all sides but would like peace to rein, maneuver themselves as conciliatory factions. Whether they succeed before the final fade-out is a matter of opinion.

But the notion of "all sides" is a particular strength of Baitz's return to Lincoln Center and to Manhattan theater after a stint in Hollywood, where he created ABC's Brothers and Sisters. There's nothing black-and-white about the family or the arguments in Other Desert Cities, although Brooke would like there to be. The dexterity with which Baitz repeatedly shifts audience attitudes towards who has the more convincing position is an adroit job of writing.

The rhythmic seesawing of sympathy is invaluably heightened by the five members of a cast directed by Joe Mantello with profound appreciation of the script's depths. Playing California majesty in a beautifully coiffed and streaked shoulder-length pageboy and wearing David Zinn's desert-casual togs, Channing delivers her caustic, aggressive, defensive lines as if handed epigrams by Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward--which is close to the case. Marvel, as usual seemingly powered by her surname, is a woman who's been past the verge of a nervous breakdown before and is trying desperately not to go there again. (Theater Trivia: both Channing and Marvel have the controlling Regina Giddins of The Little Foxes on their resume.)

Keach doesn't have to try to look like a one-time leading-man still handsome but grown portly. He's every waist-line inch that figure, and his slowly coming-undone Lyman is a sad portrait to observe. Lavin, who's made a career of never missing a laugh on a line meant to get one and who also has the knack of getting laughs where none reside, does her usual bang-up job as a woman papering over her own enduring pain. Sadoski, who initially appears to be the most normal member of this dysfunctional unit, gives full attention to Trip's positive and negative personality traits.

Other Desert Cities is less than perfect. Some of the truths pried out feel calculated and often couched in dramaturgy worryingly close to television fare. Nevertheless, its interest in airing secret and lies -- hardly a new purpose in American drama -- adds something fresh. By the time it's ended, Baitz dares to suggest that perhaps some secrets and lies of assailed families have an actual purpose and maybe shouldn't be exposed so fully.