Nature gave playwright Jon Robin Baitz a genial lift at a critics’ preview of “Other Desert Cities.”
Outside the Booth Theatre a surprise snowstorm was dumping slush on Shubert Alley.
On the stage, things couldn’t have been cozier as a couple and their adult kids crossed a chicly-appointed Palm Springs living room following a round of tennis doubles.
“All I am saying, Brooke, is that I don’t know how the hell you stand those East Coast winters,” Stockard Channing yelped, eliciting a delighted round of cheers from the damp groundlings.
The mood didn’t stay light for long.
Channing plays ex-screenwriter Polly Wyeth, miraculously preserved and long married to Lyman (Stacy Keach), a matinee idol turned Republican party factotum. Their posh spread, perfectly rendered by John Lee Beatty, resembles nothing so much as a sun-bleached mausoleum. (Especially in this expanded version; the play has moved to Broadway following its premiere last year in Lincoln Center Theater’s smaller house.)
Their sophisticated children may be to the manner born -- their talk has that private-school sheen -- but they’ve broken free in their own ways.
Trip (Tom Sadowski, beautifully underplaying the part of a complicated young man) lives in Los Angeles and produces reality TV shows. Brooke (Rachel Griffiths, in a memorable Broadway debut) wrote a promising novel years earlier, but has struggled with depression and worse since the suicide of her beloved older brother, Henry.
The family has gathered to toast her emergence from rehab and the news that her new book is about to be published by Knopf, no less.
Temporarily camping out with them is Polly’s caustic sister and former writing partner Silda (Judith Light), an alcoholic who’s on the wagon, at least for the moment.
Baitz (“The Substance of Fire,” TV’s “Brothers & Sisters”) has few peers at worming his way into the warp of intimate family relationships, doling out exquisitely crafted lines meant to cause as much injury as possible.
The blight on the Wyeths is the death of a son who went haywire, joined a cult and was implicated in a bombing that resulted in the death of an innocent man.
Brooke’s book, it transpires, is not a novel but a memoir recounting her parents’ complicity in Henry’s death. Not unexpectedly, the idea discomfits them.
Griffiths, best known for her roles on “Six Feet Under” and “Brothers & Sisters,” is more fine-grained an actress than she appears on TV. Replacing the superb Elizabeth Marvel, she makes Brooke her own, a thoroughly compelling portrait of intelligence and beauty ruined by grief.
Light, who replaced the equally wonderful Linda Lavin, does perfectly well by Silda, the play’s truth-teller with, of course, her own dark secrets.
Dark secrets unfurl in waves, eventually beaching the play with one Big Reveal too many. Even as skilled a director (and frequent Baitz collaborator) as Joe Mantello can’t keep the thing from sinking in implausibility.
Still, as an unflinching album of people intricately entwined, “Other Desert Cities” is indelible.
At the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is chief drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)