Other Desert Cities looks back on the generationally polarizing Vietnam War from the midst of the Iraq conflict. But Jon Robin Baitz's 2012 Pulitzer finalist is not just about politics; it's about family — the ties that bind us when we aren't using them to hang one another. It is Christmas 2004, and East Coast writer Brooke Wyeth has returned for the first time in six years to spend the holiday at the Palm Springs home of her Reagan-esque parents — onetime actor and GOP chair Lyman and perfectly groomed, iridescently dressed retired screenwriter Polly. But what Brooke is poised to slide under the artificial Christmas tree is detonative: a recently accepted memoir centered on her adored older brother, Henry, a 1970s activist involved with a group that bombed an army-recruiting center, resulting in a death. Henry then disappeared, an apparent suicide. Brooke herself has struggled with depression, and her dyed-in-the-wool Republican folks, though sympathetic, do not want her to roast this particular chestnut on an open fire.
Baitz's plays are always fiery and smart, with a fierce moral center. And this one is lightly sprayed with a scathing wit, the edgy, clannish camaraderie of its first act flowing naturally into the fierce struggle of its second. (Given the prodigal daughter and the presence of Polly's acerbic alcoholic sister, the work recalls Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, except that here the fears afoot are hardly existential.) And Scott Edmiston's staging for SpeakEasy Stage Company is as sparkling and emotionally truthful as the play, the smackdown between Karen MacDonald's frosted-granite Polly and Anne Gottlieb's equally stubborn but more fragile Brooke as tender as it is unrelenting.
The action unfolds on a retro-contemporary set by Janie E. Howland that Karen Perlow bathes in desert light both lovely and unreal. And the ensemble — which includes Munson Hicks as the stoic Lyman, Christopher Smith as Brooke's more easygoing younger brother, and Nancy E. Carroll as Polly's recently rehabbed sister slouching tartly toward sobriety — is terrific. It may be silly to start talking about year-end kudos in January. But at the start of last year SpeakEasy gave us Red, and that held up to 11 months of competition. I'm betting this early entrant will too.
OTHER DESERT CITIES :: Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St, Boston :: Through February 9:: $25-$52 :: 617.933.8600 or speakeasystage.com