In Other Desert Cities , playing through April 28 at the Space Theatre, what begins as a darkly comic and mannered drama slowly but assuredly churns itself into something much more profound: a gripping examination of the sacrifices families make for each other, and the psychological toll these compromises take on everyone involved.
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz's story unfolds over a Christmas gathering at the Palm Springs home of Lyman and Polly Wyeth. (James Kronzer's set design of their Mad Men-era decor is so spot on you can almost see the desert fauna through the imaginary floor-to-celing windows.) He's a retired actor (played by Mike Hartman) and she's a longtime screenwriter (Lauren Klein) who have leveraged their decades-old celebrity into a comfortable life of GOP hobnobbing and conservative activism. They've dined with the Bushes and casually refer to their old friends the Reagans as Nancy and Ron.
They've also raised three children. Their younger son, Trip (John Patrick Hayden) has made a killing producing a B-list-celebrity-focused reality TV show, and their daughter, Brooke (Kathleen McCall), is a fragile and medicated writer who's battled suicidal depression ever since she published her first novel. But she's arrived home for the holidays with her latest work, a soon-to-be-published memoir about their lost sibling, an older brother whose radical political activism led to tragedy.
That's where the intrigue begins. With the thrust and parry of intensely funny, intensely biting verbal jabs—all delivered as the booze and other substances flow—the clan reveals itself to be intelligent, accomplished—and terribly dysfunctional. They trade barbs about politics, the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, and each character's self-indulgent shortcomings. The whole thing would be downright uncomfortable to watch if not for the multiple secrets that start as water-torture drips and culminate in a torrent of shock and revelation.
All five characters—including the disheveled recovering alcoholic Aunt Silda (Tracy Shaffer), who provides comic and tragic relief throughout—deftly exchange insults, repeatedly resorting to sneering stereotypes about liberals and conservatives. (They're all right.) The chemistry between the cast is abundant and all the performances are excellent, but the highlight has to be Lauren Klein's Polly. Klein played the same role on Broadway, and she's simply gripping as the horribly haughty, judgmental, and bitterly comical matriarch.
Because Other Desert Cities borrows its ferocious bleakness from classic dramas like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it would be shortsighted to call the production something so trite as "fun." It is, however, an absorbing, harrowing, and deeply rewarding theater experience.
Other Desert Cities runs through April 28 at the Space Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets: $47-$57, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org 
—Image courtesy of DCPA
Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad .