There were quite a few empty seats when I went to see Jon Robin Baitz’s blistering new play, Other Desert Cities at The Old Vic, which definitely should not be the case. This play is a real corker and I urge people to go and see it. I was hooked from the word go. It is the most believable production, rooted in realism with well developed and rounded characters. The whole cast and script are sublime.
The play centres round the Republican Wyeth family, Mr, Mrs, son, daughter and mother’s sister. The grown up children, Brooke and Trip (could this be a hint that the parents were something to do with Hollywood?) are home for Christmas, so all should be set for a wonderful family get together. Despite the fact that they’re now sharing their plush Palm Springs home with the reformed alcoholic sister-in-law, Silda, Polly and Lyman Wyeth are determined that nothing will spoil their holidays. After all Trip seems happy enough in his LA world of reality TV shows, strange as that may seem to his retired film star father and ex screen writer mother. And Brooke seems to have recovered from her depressive phase and is settled in New York, despite Polly’s determination that she move back West. So all seems set for the best Christmas ever starting off with a Christmas Eve dinner at the local country club.
However we know that nothing is ever what it seems and as the play unfolds skeletons come bounding out of their custom built closets threatening to strangle each and every one of them. And who brings this all about? Why, the daughter, who is getting her life back on track by penning an explosive memoir. You see, there was another sibling called Henry who, it turns out, committed suicide following the firebombing of an army recruitment centre several years previously. The whole episode has always played on the mind of his devoted younger sister who now that she’s got her writing Mojo back, wants to set the record straight. But at what cost? Brooke knows the book won’t receive a totally positive reaction from her parents but she doesn’t envisage Polly’s shattering threat that she, the selfish, disloyal daughter will be disowned should the book actually be published. Neither can she nor, I believe anyone else, foresee the bombshell that Polly and Lyman eventually drop towards the end of Act Two.
As in life, each character in this play shows their strengths and weaknesses. I found myself sympathizing with each and every one of them during the course of the evening and, as a result, swapping allegiance several times. They are flawed, but not bad and brought to life by a flawless cast.
Polly Wyeth, the icily elegant and steely matriarch, is magnificently played by Sinead Cusack, who lets it be known from the outset that she takes no prisoners. Her crisp one liners are fired in machine gun style and it isn’t until the revelations in Act Two that a heart starts to shine through. Peter Egan is wonderfully moving as Polly’s less caustic and more reserved husband, whilst Clare Higgins is a wonderfully exuberant, but flawed sister. The only American in the cast is Martha Plimpton and she brings out all of Brooke’s insecurities but also inherited steeliness to wonderful effect. Daniel Lapaine as Trip Wyeth completes the quintet and doesn’t disappoint either.
At the risk of repeating myself, all in all this is an exemplary cast portraying an exemplary piece of writing. And when one reads Jon Robin Baitz’s Biography and sees that he penned the US TV Series Brothers and Sisters it begins to make sense. This man is an expert at portraying families, warts and all.
Add to all this the excellent idea of portraying Other Desert Cities in the round, giving it a wonderful intimacy, and having Lindsay Posner as Director and The Old Vic has a production which should have full houses every night. There really should be no need to hand out flyers outside The Donmar Warehouse this week advertising the play.