Family dramas with mismatched parents and offspring locked in a room together for a festive occasion, jabbing accusatory figures at each other, has been playwright fodder for the past few decades. As the world opened up to us, playwrights seemed to shrink inwardly, aiming to make sense of the wider world within our own small ones.
I have mixed feelings about theatrical family dramas. Done right, they simmer with resonance and captivate with a power that a play with bigger boundaries can’t. But they can often misfire, descending into shouty cliches where middle class characters stomp about in bare feet on plush rugs, desperately slurping glasses of wine while pacing up and down.
The synopsis of Other Desert Cities reads like one of those; privileged kids? Check. Successful parents? A Dark Secret? Tick, yes, oh yes. Add in booze (whiskey, not wine) and barefeet (one set) and we looked like we might be in for an evening of disparate shouting.
But West Wing writer Jon Robin Baitz is better than that. His ingredients may be mundane, but the result is Michelin starred. Other Desert Cities is set in Palm Springs in 2002 as America is still shaking from the 9/11 attacks and is now at war with Iraq. As the bombs drop on Baghdad, there’s another war about to erupt in the spacious living room of Polly (Sinéad Cusack) and Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan), two former Hollywood actors turned Republican politicians who dine with the Regans and pine for the days of an old ‘merica. They are scared inside their desert oasis and their fear is making them mean. But their lives are more complicated than their days of tennis and country club lunches imply and the arrival of their two grown up children, their damaged writer daughter Brooke and sex addicted son Trip along with Polly’s hippy, alcoholic sister, for Christmas unlocks their vulnerability.
Baitz’s script is sparky and original, the intensity broken up with astutely funny lines; the play bristles with anger, resentment and exasperation. The acting is all superb, especially Paul Egan who lies low for the first half, only for his character to unleash his grief and heartbreak so movingly in the second half. Cusack plays her ice cold republican matriarch with a caustic wit with relish, while Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves’ shouty girlfriend in Parenthood, tones her adolescent angst down for this role and strikes a convincing note as a desperate, sad woman searching for the truth at what ever cost. Clare Higgins and Daniel Lapaine as Silda Grauman and Trip Wyeth give this ensemble piece extra humanity and humour.
Other Desert Cities is a very American play, but, like Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill it’s also a very human one, so its themes transcend the Atlantic. It’s very American-ness also helps to dampen down the class element which can often hinder a middle class family drama like this; rich kids whining can be eye-rollingly dull.
Engrossing, funny and heartbreaking, Other Desert Cities is, unlike the city it’s set in, anything but dry and bland. It’ll grip you by the throat from the beginning and take you by surprise right up until the end.
by Suzanne Elliott
Until 24 May, for more information and tickets www.oldvictheatre.com.