Other Desert Cities – Old Vic Theatre

Posted by Laurence Green

Jon Robin Baitz drama of loyalty, betrayal, duty and kinship exposes the wounds of an American family with compassion, sharpened by some acid wit, says Laurence Green.

Other Desert Cities

A family gathering turns into an occasion for bitterness and recrimination in Jon Robin Baitz's slow burning new play Other Desert Cities, directed by Lindsay Posner at the Old Vic Theatre.

The action is set on Christmas Eve in the plush Palm Beach home of the Wyeths, an old Hollywood family. Lyman Wyeth was a former movie star who became an ambassador when his friend Ronald Reagan became president of the United States.

His waspish, strongly Republican wife Polly wrote a series of B movies with her alcoholic sister Silda who is just getting over a relapse after years of sobriety.

Returning home for the holiday are the couple's two grown up children: Trip the producer of a trash television show and his older sister Brook a troubled novelist who has a bomb shell to deliver. After six years in hospital with depression she has written a tell all memoir about her family and, in particular about the oldest child Henry who committed suicide years earlier after getting involved with terrorists and fire-bombing a US army recruitment centre which resulted in the death of the janitor.

Exposing the most painful chapter of the family's buried past threatens to destroy everything her famous parents hold dear and they try to dissuade her from going ahead and publishing the book, while her aunt applauds her honesty.

As the row becomes more intense it pushes the fractured family relations to the point of no return.

This is a play of two halves: the first drawn-out and somewhat run of the mill and the second both tense and involving. Baitz deals head on with such themes as loyalty and betrayal and duty and kinship and manages to meld them into a drama of truth and compassion, sharpened by some acid wit. But I do wish the first act had been tightened and shortened by about 20 minutes as it would certainly have made a much better play.

Director Lindsay Posner has staged the piece in the round and draws excellent performances from American actress Martha Plimpton as the fragile writer daughter Brooke, capturing all the character's anguish and grief as well as the novelist's fierce need to reveal the truth, whatever the personal cost, Peter Egan and Sinaed Cusack as Lyman and Polly Wyeth respectively, Danny Mahoney as Trip and Clare Higgins as the alcoholic free-spirited aunt Silda.

A further word of praise must go to Robert Innes Hopkins's evocative living-room set with drinks cabinet and palm tree placed diagonally opposite a Christmas tree.

This certainly is a play which springs surprises until the very end!


Other Desert Cities

Runs at the Old Vic Theatre until Saturday 24 May 2014

Box office: 0844 871 7628

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