US playwright Jon Robin Baitz has written for a slew of slick-witted American dramas like The West Wing and Brothers and Sisters, and that’s evident in his play, Other Desert Cities – it’s certainly a competent piece of scripting – but where this play about a feuding family needs to slap faces and draw blood it feels peculiarly blunt. It’s as if it has had its nails clipped in transit.
Peter Egan and Sinead Cusack play Lyman and Polly Wyeth, two cast-iron pillars of the Republican party, who have asked their son, Trip (Daniel Lapaine), and daughter, Brooke (Martha Plimpton), over for Christmas at their home in Palm Springs. Brooke, a writer who lives in New York, has dragged herself from the depths of a particularly black period of depression by slaving over her long-awaited second book, the manuscript of which she has brought with her for the family to read. The problem is the book is not a novel; it’s a memoir about the suicide of her older brother, Henry, some years back, and casts her mother, father and their well-to-do friends as GOP dinosaurs who, with their fanatical devotion to quote unquote ‘traditional’ American values, drove their non-conformist son to the point of self-destruction.
Set in about 2003, the drama that unfolds is punctuated by events in American history from Vietnam to Iraq, from Kennedy and Johnson to Bush and Cheney. It is – or at least it starts out as – an analogy of how the west was lost and how rich, white men destroyed America. By the end, thank God, it’s more complicated. More on this later.
Posner’s direction is pretty much spot on and his cast are uniformly very strong, especially Egan, Cusack and Clare Higgins, who plays Polly’s sister Silda, a dried-up old drunk who lives and leaches off mater and pater, while more or less keeping up the façade that she doesn’t despise them and everything they stand for. Polly is elegant and fierce – like all good Republican wives – and Cusack adroitly mimics the warbling rhythms of the Texan South, where her character grew up. If anything, Cusack throws herself into the vocal performance with a little too much gusto, sounding at times like a hair-metal guitarist dipping and scooping the whammy bar – I’ve been there, though, some of the women do sound like that. Egan is similarly impressive as Lyman, the matinee movie star turned ambassador turned chairman of the Californian wine board. He’s a strong presence whose rich, authoritarian baritone makes believable his unlikely CV.
The lengthy –and no doubt expensive – transformation of the end-on Old Vic to an in-the-round auditorium is entirely justified and Robert Innes Hopkins’s set perfectly captures the Case Study houses of ‘50s and ‘60s California. You can imagine one of David Hockney’s acolytes splashing around in the pool next door.
So far so good, but Other Desert Cities still left me rather cold. Firstly, it’s an uneven battle. My feeling is the play is designed so that the sympathy of the audience oscillates between Brooke, her brother Trip and their parents. Except it doesn’t. Trip – a reality TV producer and self-confessed sex addict who is by far the most level-headed character in the play – gives his sister a dressing down at the beginning of the second half that I’m guessing is there to lift the veils from our eyes about what a selfish and self-centred little shit she’s being. “You think your depression gives you the right to a free pass,” he tells her, taking about the incendiary memoir, “but it doesn’t […] Your depression makes you banal.” The problem is: how could anyone see the first half of the play and not work this out for themselves?
Brooke is a writer and so, she declares, her allegiance is to the truth and damn the consequences. “I wish I weren’t a writer,” she says, “but I am.” What a total prick. And what’s worse is that this is a cliche, an old and preposterous lie doubly exposed by the fact that what she has written isn’t truth – if that were even possible – it’s the memory of a child who was 10 years old at the time.
Largely, this leads me on to the second and most troubling problem. Namely, if you’re going to write a play about which is greater art or family, then there needs to be some genuine familial warmth at its centre, otherwise things start to become rather hollow no matter who wins. Here that never quite comes across, neither in the lines nor their performance. In short, the language, though admirably snappy and clever, is not the language of families. Sentences are too well formed and interrogatory. And there’s no (or very little) subtext. Language in families is all subtext, isn’t it? And while here there’s a lot of wide-eyed pleading, of hands clutching chests and people saying things like: “Look, mom, I have to do this…” or “Please, sis, I love you with all my heart but…”, there’s not a great deal of subtextual interaction. No clue of the deep, inexpressible feelings that lie beneath the surface of many families – odd when you consider this play is about secret histories.
The pity is that there is an undeniable craft and quality evident on the stage. We have, as I hinted at earlier, a neat turnaround at the end of the play with the kidults, Brooke and Trip, having the burden of responsibility bestowed upon them. Two over-indulged generation ‘X’ers given the keys to their own cage and allowed, like Adam and Eve, out into the world for the first time. It’s a parable for our times, so why do I think it doesn’t quite hit home?