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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Nothing brings out family dysfunction quite like the holidays, does it?

That's where Jon Robin Baitz's play, Other Desert Cities, at the Mark Taper Forum begins.

It's 2004, Christmas eve. We're in the lovely Palm Springs living room of the Wyeths. Mom and Dad are Republicans, I mean old school Republicans -- personal friends of Ron and Nancy. The kids, now past thirty, are home for the holidays. The son is a TV producer in LA -- he's got a reality courtroom show. The daughter, our protagonist, is a liberal New York novelist. She's had a tough time of it. Her last novel was six years ago but, thank god, she's finally written something new. She's home for the holidays to share it with the family because . . . well, it's about them.

What unfolds over the course of a little more than two hours is a family drama where the dark secrets of the past are resurrected. In so many ways, it feels like a classic Taper play. There's a beautiful one room set that's perfectly perched on the thrust stage. Robert Egan, who was the Producing Director at the Taper for 20 years, is directing. The playwright, Mr. Baitz, is no stranger to the Taper stage having cut his teeth with Padua Playwrights here in his native LA. And the play is about a world this audience knows. Hell, the characters could be sitting next to you in the Taper audience.

As the dialogue begins, it's that well written, crisp, sarcastic banter. Beneath the typical 'kids home for the holidays -- why don't you move back here and spare yourselves that awful east coast winter there's a political undercurrent. Written in 2006, the play's references to Rumsfield, al Quaeda, and 'they brought the towers down' -- feels oddly, but pleasantly dated.

Ultimately, Other Desert Cities isn't a political drama. Politics serve as merely a catalyst for the family's generational disconnect but not it's source. What's most satisfying about the play isn't the red and blue divide but the changing and unpredictable nature of who has the playwright's ear and our attention. Mr. Baitz lures us into thinking we know where his sympathies lie and who's our hero. But rather than a one-sided angry diatribe, or as the matriarch would call it 'liberal whining', he's written a complex, wonderfully fair and, dare I say, balanced argument.

Unfortunately, the ensemble doesn't feel up to the play vocally. It's not that you can't hear them -- you can. It's just a bit hollow. Lines that should have a real bite, the currency of dysfunctional families everywhere, don't really land. It feels as if the actors aren't really listening to one another. Mr. Egan has shaped Mr. Baitz's words and scenes but somehow you don't feel them. It's as if you keep hearing the muffled sound of a much better play that's just in the next room.

I can imagine a cast that would really sink their teeth into this play. Sadly, this isn't that cast.

Other Desert Cities plays through January 6 at the Mark Taper Forum downtown.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Banner image: Robin Weigert and Michael Weston in Other Desert Cities. Photo by Craig Schwartz