With an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata" playing at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, his often quoted opening lines from "Anna Karenina" frame another play in town, "Other Desert Cities" at the Pittsburgh Public Theater:
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Meet the Wyeths, a very unhappy bunch with Hollywood celebrity pedigree, exiled in the artificial oasis of Palm Springs among their peers -- wealthy, moss-backed Republicans. Their own way of discontent and depression has a sharp contemporary edge to it, one of the elements that elevates Jon Robin Baitz's two-act play above the usual family dramas we're fed on TV and in the movies. It's also one reason why "Other Desert Cities" did so well on Broadway and is now making its way around the regional circuit.
"Other Desert Cities"
• Where: Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.
• When: Through June 30. Tuesday, 7 p.m.; Wednesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m.
• Tickets: $55-$23; 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org.
Another key element to its appeal are the five singular characters, interesting in their own way, just enough to save them from cliche. The Public's talented cast is led by Pittsburgh regular Helena Ruoti, in one of her best roles in years. As matriarch Polly, a retired screenwriter, she's pitted against her troubled, angry daughter Brooke, a relentless Pilar Witherspoon, whose upcoming memoir threatens to shame the family.
Mr. Baitz has caught the bad vibes coming from the recent stack of suspect personal stories loosely called "memoir" and spreads the bad karma around with smart references to such suspects as Augusten Burroughs' largely invented tell-all.
Polly is such an unlikable, seemingly unforgiving mother that she approaches the caricature level of the Joan Crawford model, but Ms. Ruoti skillfully slides around that pitfall with flashes of humanity and sympathy.
Mr. Baitz finds an appealing father figure of the Ronald Reagan school -- a manly screen star whose movie patriotism gains him entree to conservative California politics and a spot at the table of Dutch and Nancy and their rich pals, such as the Annenbergs and Bloomingdales. As patriarch Lyman Wyeth, James DeMarse has the thick Reagan hair and strong jaw of a film hero, as well as the confused, helpless stare when there's no script to follow.
John Patrick Hayden plays Trip, the youngest sibling who missed all the mommy drama and who now, as producer of a successful lowbrow TV reality show, wants everybody to just get along as they reunite for Christmas. Mr. Hayden is an appealing actor who occasionally stumbled over some of the playwright's speeches while distinguishing himself among the strong cast.
As Polly's recovering alcoholic sister, Silda, Susan Cella needs a lot of strength to carry the comedy role. She delivers the Joan Rivers one-liners -- some of which are stale -- with a stiletto and offers levity in the midst of the play's unrelenting unhappiness.
Rob Ruggiero's direction is largely invisible, but he's allowed the Brooke character to lapse into one-note whining and the actors to block each other from the audience or speak with their back turned, muffling some dialogue.
With its clever, contemporary family members, friction from right wing and left wing or West Coast vs. East Coast encounters and sharply observed views on memoirs, "Other Desert Cities" at first convinces us that it's a rare bird among the conventional dramas of today. Its resolution, however, is just as formulaic as most of them and the coda seems, as most do, tacked on to scrub up the Wyeths' fate.
There's the anticipated family "secret" as well surrounding the elephant in the living room, the absent brother Henry, whose past obsesses his parents and sister.
"Other Desert Cities" remains fresh and relevant, however, in the handsome production at the Public, including the sly, witty set by Michael Schweikardt -- at first blush, an elegant, 1950s Palm Springs living room, then revealed as full of kitsch.
Two hours with the California Wyeth clan passes swiftly and entertainingly with just enough sharp wit and emotional moments to satisfy even the most jaded theatergoers and create a fitting finale to the Public's 38th season.
Bob Hoover: Bobhoover46@gmail.com. First Published June 8, 2013 4:00 AM