Other Desert Cities at the Old Vic
Polly and Lyman Wyeth and their grown-up children, Trip and Brooke, gather at the Palm Springs family home expecting a peaceful Christmas. Yet beneath the banter and apparent lightness thrives a wealth of tensions. Feisty retired screenwriter Polly – played with fractious, flirtatious force by theatre bastion Sinead Cusack – disapproves of her daughter Brooke, whose left-wing lifestyle includes a six-year writer’s block and an episode of catatonic depression. Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan) is a Republican and ex-Hollywood star, who heads the family with solid joviality. Trip (Daniel Lapaine) is a hyperactive game show host who avoids any hint of seriousness. There’s an elusive third child, Henry, who joined a drug cult in the late 70s and committed suicide after blowing up an army base… or so everyone believes. When Brooke produces her latest manuscript – an accusatory memoir of her brother’s breakdow n- her parents are forced to reveal their truth, or face the consequences of their crime.
As the crime is revealed, we are forced to consider whose actions were the most selfish and whose verdict is the most reliable. As Baitz states in an interview with the Old Vic, Brooke “causes a serious chemical reaction that results in certain positives. She’s brave, selfish…. and fragile”. Brooke’s experiences at the bottom have produced in her a reckless honesty, because a refuse of her past will cause her to self-destruct. But she possesses only a candid child’s vision of her brother, the colourful adventurer who sat her between two speakers until she had memorised the entire Beach Boys album. Polly and Lyman watched their son’s breakdown with a mature eye, but that eye is not unprejudiced. Their public roles, their social supremacy, make any admission of weakness or eccentricity on the part of their family destructive. Was their masking of the truth more to do with their own appearances than with the son they attempted to protect?
Other Desert Cities was one of the most produced plays in the US in 2012-13, and it is brought to pulsing life here on the Old Vic stage. The newly-designed seating plan surrounding a central stage adds a layer of intimacy and contact – so much so that objects thrown around by the cast encounter the polished brogues of onlookers. The entire cast revel in the wit and surreal images of Baitz’s script, particularly Lapaine as the comic lightener. Clare Higgins is hysterical as Silda, the alcoholic neighbour. But it is Peter Egan who shines as the drama mounts. Lyman’s emotion is palpable. Egan shouts somehow without raising his voice, accurately conveying the vulnerability within the family’s leaning post.
A childhood resident of California, Baitz knows the danger of the endless possibilities of America’s dreaming coast. Fame is a constant motive for actions – the Lyman’s must repress their truth because of their fame, and infected by the egotistical environment of her upbringing, Brooke is ready to harm those around her to achieve it. A drama of confession that challenges the ethics of confessional art, Other Desert Cities is a profoundly intelligent play, performed by a more than capable cast.
Photo: Alistair Muir
Other Desert Cities is at the Old Vic until 24th May 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.