Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2
Another week, another American transfer; ‘Other Desert Cities’ at the Old Vic Theatre is the latest play by Jon Robin Baitz (screenwriter for ‘The West Wing’ and creator/executive producer of ‘Brothers and Sisters’) to take both Broadway and the West End by storm – it was nominated for five Tony Awards! If you’re one for dramas about family relationships, secrets and intense feelings bubbling up after being mostly hidden for years, this is the one for you – a ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ style piece.
Our story starts on Christmas Eve 2004 in the plush house of Polly and Lymen Wyeth in Palm Springs, California. Immediately, as the family traipse back from a tennis match, both the heat of the titular ‘desert cities’, and the tightly-strung tension between the family members becomes palpable. Brooke, the daughter, has returned home after six years away in New York, coping with depression and writing. Trip, her brother, is the amiable one, trying to stop the arguments between his Republican parents and Liberal sister and aunt; Silda, Polly’s sister, is also staying at the house after a stint in rehab. The drinks trolley in the corner of the stage is frequently used by all characters, an indication of exactly how this family deals with their problems and dark secrets, of which there are many.
The first real crisis of the drama – Brooke’s announcement that she is publishing a memoir dredging up the earlier suicide of her elder brother Henry – proves a catalyst that loosens everyone’s tongues, heightens already elevated tensions and brings the family to breaking point. Intense drama is intermixed with moments of witty comedy (mostly from Silda and Trip) which prevent the atmosphere from becoming headache-makingly oppressive.
For me, this was a lesson in character portrayal more than anything else. The Old Vic was transformed so the entire production was staged in the round, allowing the audience to examine the complex personalities from all angles. Being lucky enough to get a front row seat, I especially felt right in the middle of the action!
My particular favourite character was Trip, played by Daniel Lapaine as the easy-going youngest son on whom everyone leans, without much thought for how this has affected him. In a play chock-a-block with big personalities and bigger egos, his part was more subtle, but one of the most believable and heart-wrenching. His partner-in-crime in many scenes, on the outskirts of the raging battle between Brooke and her parents, was Silda (Clare Higgins). Higgins played this ever-changing part deftly so that, whilst her wisecracks and seemingly honest revelations endear her to us, she is also clearly someone not to be trusted and, like the others, with her own personal agenda.
Speaking of personal agendas, we must move onto the neurotic, depressive Brooke (Martha Plimpton), probably the hardest character to emphasise with, at least from my perspective. However, I do think Plimpton fell on the right side of the line between impossibly irritating and understandably frustrating and made the character a whole lot more likeable than any lesser actress could have done. What I did find interesting was how many more of her liberal views I shared (something to do with the generational gap I’m sure, just as the play demonstrates), but yet how much more I sympathised with her parents.
The brittle Polly (Sinead Cusack) and understanding Lymen (Peter Egan) are, although perhaps not in the most obvious way, a perfect match. Now I am in no way saying I wish I had them as my parents, but at the same time, although Brooke frequently questions it, it is plain that they truly care about their family. One of the best things about this play was that nothing was completely black and white. I sympathised with every single one of the characters at some point, and each and every one of their positions was understandable, if perhaps not justifiable. This was, naturally, partly down to the script, but in a large part due to the excellent ensemble cast.
I loved the staging in the round, and the set itself was perfect; all white sofas and carpets, and a fireplace, even though the palm trees and costumes definitely gave you the feeling of oppressive heat. The story itself, just like ‘Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ went through many twists and turns and surprises, with the final bombshell not exactly unpredictable, but pretty shocking nonetheless.
Overall, an excellent production of a pretty good play. The ensemble cast and staging are the best bits about it, whereas I felt the only real flaw was the sense that this kind of family drama has been done a lot before. Basically an interesting play to watch, but not heralding anything crazily inventive and new in the realm of theatre.
‘Other Desert Cities’ at the Old Vic Theatre: 4/5 stars