Theatre Review: Other Desert Cities

Last week I went to see Other Desert Cities at The Old Vic. I absolutely loved it and feel even happier being able to say that it’s on for another month – I actually reviewed a play that’s not about to close for once! Hurrah!

Other Desert Cities is a modern play by US playwright Jon Robin Baitz, which was first performed in 2011, although the production at The Old Vic marks its UK premiere. The play is set in Palm Springs in 2003. It follows the Wyeth family: conservative, friends-of-Ron-and-Nancy parents, alcoholic, hippy aunt and liberal, artistic children, gathering for Christmas. Daughter Brooke (Martha Plimpton) is a writer and has recently recovered from an extended and serious battle with depression. Her trip to see her family from the East Coast coincides with her announcement that she has finally written a follow up to her debut novel. Her mother Polly (Sinead Cusack) is suspicious of the fact that Brooke won’t reveal the topic of her book, while simultaneously concerned with her sister, Silva (Claire Higgins) who has relapsed after five years sober and staying with them. Meanwhile, father Lyman (Peter Egan) and brother Trip (Daniel Lapaine) try and maintain peace and equilibrium. However, all pleasantries are dismissed when Brooke reveals to the family that her new book is a tell-all memoir about the family and most specifically, her long deceased brother Henry, who her parents seem determined to forget.

Other Desert Cities was a barbed, witty, loving and uncompromising look at the things we do for and to our family. Baitz did an excellent job of examining the schisms that appear in families – politically, emotionally, ideologically – without losing sight of the fact that however unkind the Wyeth family might be to each other, however vehemently they disagree, they do love each other. He questions whether love for our family trumps following our own instincts and how important it is to be honest with those we are supposed to be closest to. The damning, devastating effect of not being honest with family is all over Other Desert Cities, with the characters re-telling each other the same old lies, dodging the same old questions until they can’t any more. Brooke and Trip’s memories as children are particularly unreliable; we think we have understood things as children, but we’re almost never able to see the whole picture.

Something I found particularly interesting was the play’s examination of the disparity of memory. Brooke remembers situations in a totally opposite way to her parents, with none of them able to see those memories in a different way. This is something that happens with even the most innocuous remembrances – different family members recall different aspects of an incident, with different emphases depending on the personal viewpoint. Here, stubbornness and an inability to see the past in the same way leads Brooke to clash with her parents over how they remember Henry. As the play moves closer and closer to a complete exposure of the events of the past, you can feel the characters clinging ever more tightly to their version of the truth.

Aside from the intelligent (and very funny) writing, Other Desert Cities was made by its acting. One of the draws for me was the cast. Growing up an acting and theatre buff, being able to watch Sinead Cusack and Claire Higgins, along with one of my favourites, Martha Plimpton, was really exciting.

Peter Egan, playing ex-actor-turned-politician Lyman, filled the stage with his presence. Physically tall and impressive, he gave Lyman a booming, screen-idol-y sort of voice, lending a sort of Gary Cooper air to him. Watching his solidity at the start slowly unravel was one of the most moving aspects of the play.

Sinead Cusack was astounding. Her Polly seemed carved out of marble, so unmoving and resolute. She snapped and swiped at the others with a ferocious wit, refusing to be admonished or shamed by her children for her life or her choices; totally unrepentant. It was fascinating the way Cusack built this character, creating a figure so sure of herself, so definite about all things. She was both exactly what we thought and nothing like we thought. I also enjoyed the idea of Polly and Lyman’s cover in visibility – finding a tribe to both belong to and hide behind was an interesting idea.

I have long been a fan of Martha Plimpton and I was excited to have the rare opportunity to see her onstage. I am delighted to say it exceeded expectations. Plimpton was excellent as Brooke. She conveyed her restlessness and visceral need for the truth, to make sense of her life through her brother. There was something childlike about the way Brooke appeared on stage, with a blonde bob, plimsolls and unfussy clothes, so at odds with the rest of her family. It was like looking at a little girl taking her penance for misbehaviour, bracing herself for a telling off. I thought her depiction of Brooke’s love and appreciation of her family versus her desire to push forward with the book regardless was well played. There was nervousness and and intensity in all of Plimpton’s movements; Brooke had to know how her book would be received yet there’s an endearing naivete to they way in which she hopes they will all come to see both its artistic merit and potential for psychological healing.

Claire Higgins and Daniel Lapaine had smaller roles but both still played a blinder. Lapaine’s scene with Plimpton at the start of the second act, where Trip points out that Brooke doesn’t really know much about him was excellent, as was Higgins’ unravelling of Silva’s moral high ground as Brooke learns of her aunt’s true role in her brother’s troubles.

I enjoyed the push-pull relationships displayed between Polly and Brooke and Lyman and Henry. The complicated dynamics parents have with their children are endlessly interesting and I think Other Desert Cities does a great job of exploring this and other relationships within the family structure. It considered the identities we give ourselves within our families and how much we are to blame for the roles we play and whether they help or hinder us. The setting of the play in the round added a whole new dimension to the viewing experience and it was a play well suited to this arrangement, creating an intimacy and closeness to our characters – some audience members were practically sat on stage – that made me feel closer to the action.

I absolutely loved Other Desert Cities. It was smart, well-paced and moving, with a cast of superlative actors at the top of their game. Highly recommended – I liked it so much I even bought the text!

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