A family reunion; a prodigal daughter; a sour, one-liner spewing mother; intergenerational strife; shocking family secrets; lots of drinking; lots of rich Americans worrying about rich American stuff.
Jon Robin Baitz’s ‘Other Desert Cities’ sounds familiar – that synopsis could equally be applied to ‘August: Osage County’, or last year’s ‘Disgraced’, or seemingly most things that get nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
But the fact is that lots of these plays are very good, and while the privilege of Baitz‘s protagonists can occasionally grate, ‘Other Desert Cities’ is the best thing I’ve seen at the Old Vic in yonks.
Headline attraction in director Lindsay Posner’s cast is American actor Martha Plimpton. She is superb as Brooke, the lefty writer daughter of the staunchly Republican Wyeth clan. Returning to her parents’ Palm Springs pad for Christmas in the desert, Brooke ruins the holidays pretty comprehensively by announcing plans to publish a warts-and-all family memoir. Plimpton is loud, vulnerable, effortlessly likeable and troublingly ambivalent, forever restating the reasons why she is publishing the memoir without ever sounding convinced: because she owes it to herself; because it’ll end her writer’s block; because it’s what kept her going after her breakdown; because the world should know that her parents drove her brother Henry to join a cult and kill himself. The underlying, half-voiced suggestion is that she had pathetically hoped her poisonous mother Polly (Sinéad Cusack) and kindly, patrician father Lyman (Peter Egan) would somehow approve.
The rest of the cast, all British and Irish, are also excellent, particularly Cusack, who dispenses cruel barbs like harpoons, but maintains real gravitas, credible as a humble Jewish girl who reinvented herself as a formidable Wasp through sheer bludgeoning force of will.
‘Other Desert Cities’ is a skilfully blended cocktail of fear, anger, unvoiced grievances and sassy putdowns, magnified by the Old Vic’s current, greatly improved in-the-round configuration. But the key ingredient is love – neither Baitz nor Posner, nor cast allows us to forget how desperately the five people on stage – Brooke, her parents, her brother Trip (Daniel Lapaine) and her aunt Silda (Claire Higgins) – care about each other. Sometimes it’s a relief, sometimes it’s too painful to bear. And it’s the explosive legacy of this love that delivers the play’s killer final revelations. Sometimes you long for the working-class earthiness of O’Neill or Miller, but this is a Big American Play of the first order.
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I can't say I agree with the Time Out reviewer who claims Plimpton is easily likeable; myself and my friend thought she (her character) was the least likeable for her self absorbed arrogance and inability to see beyond herself - she was infuriating. But good for that. Not nearly enough shadows on the present brother were shown; Sinead Cusack was brilliant although Peter Egan sounded more like the monologue delivery man instead of engaging in dialogue. The dry drunk aunt was quite nasty and completely ungrateful. A very chattering classes play. But good. And the Old Vic sell that delightful orange and mascarpone ice cream :o))
Devastated by the suicide of her elder brother Henry a few years earlier, Brooke has suffered a period of hospitalising depression and returns home for the first time in 6 years to spend Christmas with her parents, brother and aunt. To deal with her issues, and aided by her recovering alcoholic aunt, Brooke has written a literary memoir about the family and, as she sees it, their cold responsibility for Henry’s political radicalisation and subsequent death. Then comes the snag; the book is due to be reviewed in the New Year and Brooke has not only to reveal her secret to the family, but give them time to read the manuscript and digest its accusatory tone. As events play out and family tensions escalate, Brooke’s blindness is revealed through the alternative perspectives of her relations, and she learns how far parental love has extended.
This is a fascinating production that effectively builds tension by enhancing a number of contrasting factors, most notably in the various personalities on display. Brooke, played by Martha Plimpton, is somewhat earnest, seemingly grounded but also determined to ‘defeat’ her overbearing mother by publishing come-what-may. Meanwhile her surviving brother Trip (who was too young to remember the events at hand) is a producer making mindless TV for the masses, living a shallow existence in LA and wanting an easy life. But it’s their parents Polly and Lyman - the ever brilliant Sinead Cusack and Peter Egan - who are in every sense the real stars of this show. It is their characters and behaviour which drive the actions of the play forward, and trying to understand their motivation is at the heart of Brooke’s memoir.
Lyman is a former actor, Regan-esquely famous for tough guy roles, who moved into politics and local society. On the surface at least, he’s calm and constrained, essential a peaceable man which he maintains by refusing to engage with these tragic memories. Some of the best and most moving moments come when Lyman is forced, by his daughter’s actions, to confront what happened to his family and the part he played in bringing it about. Peter Egan is simply wonderful in this role, first belligerently blocking his ears to his daughter’s betrayal and then dissolving as he’s forced to finally reveal the truth. Sinead Cusack’s Polly is quite a different creature; outwardly made of stone, Polly found limited fame writing a series of films in 70s before becoming a society wife. But make no mistake, she is in charge of this family and her abhorrence of any human weakness has shaped the lives of her children. The scenes between Brooke and Polly are some of the most intense and Cusack maintains a glacial pose whilst still creating a sense of depth and supressed emotion in the character, an inkling of which we see towards the end.
The intimacy of this play is aided by the Old Vic’s new ‘round-space’ which, as in 2008 with the Norman Conquests, has reconfigured the traditional proscenium arch stage and stalls, meaning the audience now sees the action from every angle and there’s no way for the characters to escape our insight. It’s a pretty impressive idea and an imaginative use of the space, so I’m glad to see it reinstalled this year. Other Desert Cities is a perfect season opener, full of great performances and plenty to think about next time you embark on a fraught family Christmas.
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