Dark Secrets Roil ‘Desert’; Wilde’s Too-Tame ‘Earnest’: Review

Linda Lavin and Stockard Channing
Linda Lavin and Stockard Channing in "Other Desert Cities." Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

In Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” Elizabeth Marvel gives a breathtaking performance as a young writer who drops a literary bombshell on the family at their tony Palm Springs home.

Brooke Wyeth has survived one successful novel and intermittent rehab. After six fallow years, her second book has been accepted by a prestigious publisher, and the family is gathering to celebrate.

But mother (Stockard Channing, unrecognizable as a surgically preserved Republican doyenne) and father (Stacy Keach, suavely white-haired as a former movie star-turned G.O.P. shill) suspect something is up because Brooke has been uncharacteristically secretive about the project.

They were right to be worried. She’s written a family-destroying account of the long-ago disappearance of her beloved older brother.

Also in on the confrontations are her aunt (Linda Lavin, delectably acid as the wreckage of a writer desperately trying to stay on the wagon), and her younger brother (Thomas Sadowski, preppily appealing as a successful junk-TV producer).

Baitz has written a bravely old-fashioned drama packed with much yelling, many convenient revelations and searing confrontations. Staged at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater with finesse by Joe Mantello, the evening recalls an era made defunct by television. Yet “Other Desert Cities” has the scent of truth about how families work, and don’t work.

John Lee Beatty’s set -- all whites and creams to blend in with the desert setting -- adds greatly to the effect of poison drawn from the safest-seeming wells.

Through Feb. 27 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.lct.org Rating: ***

‘Importance of Being Earnest’

As Lady Augusta Bracknell, the imperious dowager who is the fulcrum of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Brian Bedford gets to utter one of the most entertaining putdowns ever written.

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune,” she tells her prospective son-in-law, an orphan famously found in a handbag in London’s Victoria Station. “To lose both looks like carelessness.”

Bedford, who also directs this revival of Oscar Wilde’s comedy, dons the wigs and feathered hats that have made the role catnip to divas as various as Judi Dench and Joan Plowright.

Bedford is purse-lipped and aloof as Lady Bracknell, a gorgon of mock-scandalized calm floating through Desmond Heeley’s sensuous sets. A profusion of roses spills like raindrops in the garden scene and the young ladies-in-waiting (for marriage) are dollishly trussed by Heeley in white and pink.

The uneven cast is brightened by two other fine veterans, Dana Ivey and Paxton Whitehead, as the dour Miss Prism and the befuddled Reverend Chasuble. They add the dose of satire the production otherwise lacks.

Through March 6 at the American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; http://www.roundabouttheatre.org Rating: **

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Average
*           Below Par
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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