When Lyman Wyeth, played by Stacy Keach in Jon Robin Baitz's new play, marvels at how cold the California desert gets at night, you could almost hear audience members at last night's opening of Other Desert Cities thinking, "Cold? The Palm Springs desert is cold? New York in January is cold!" And yet by the time those theatergoers had trudged through tundra-like temps across the street from the Mitzi Newhouse stage to the party at Josephina, the mood was roastingly warm. An entertaining, moving play, performed by five expressive actors, in Manhattan after the last of the holiday tourists has departed: what could be better?
Certainly, the actors were enjoying themselves, visibly happy to have the thing officially uncorked at last. "Yes, I'm feeling good tonight," said cast member Linda Lavin, who may officially live now in North Carolina but who keeps getting called back north to perform. (I've heard her in the past say: "I try to leave the complaining to my characters.") Elizabeth Marvel was also radiant in mufti; I wouldn't be surprised if a partygoer or two singled her out for her work in True Grit, the Number One movie in America right now, and an assignment that took Marvel far from blue-state frigidity: her scenes were shot in Texas.
As hot hors d'oeuvres kept being passed (a strategy that kept people on their feet mingling, as contrasted with the cozy stationary sit-down of a more standard opening-night buffet), an unceasing stream of people came up to Baitz and his director, Joe Mantello, to offer congratulations. The kudos also kept coming to ensemble member Thomas Sadoski. I asked him whether he and his four onstage cohorts, all of them gifted with powerful speaking voices, had had to tone down their lung power to accommodate the intimate Newhouse space. "Not really," he replied, "it can pretty much absorb whatever you give it."
Cast member Stockard Channing concurred. "You don't have to hold back much in the Newhouse." And she should know: she once starred there in a John Guare play that, if you're reading this blog, you are undoubtedly a fan of: Six Degrees of Separation. Guare was at the Other Desert Cities affair, just days after a rich, emotional final performance of his A Free Man of Colorat LCT's Vivian Beaumont.
Channing/Guare wasn't the only axis spinning at Josephina. Sarah Jessica Parker, who appeared at LCT in the early 1990s in another Baitz family drama involving books, The Substance of Fire, made the scene. During intermission at Other Desert Cities, she offered me some of her M & Ms (confession: I had just bought my own), while pronouncing a verdict on the performance that was as sweet as the candy: "Wonderful." Her escort for the evening, actor John Benjamin Hickey, who worked with Mantello on the Terrence McNally hit, Love! Valour! Compassion!, also seemed - like everyone I talked to on opening night -- Very! Well! Pleased!
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.