Other Desert Cities
Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London SE1 8NB
By Jon Robin Baitz
Joan Didion once said that "writers are always betraying somebody" and this gets to the nub of this brilliant new American play by Jon Robin Baitz. Best known for creating (and being ejected from) the hit ABC drama series Brothers and Sisters, he's a well–established writer, who had a much–deserved hit with this on Broadway in 2011.
Here, this refreshingly old–fashioned play is given a beautifully judged production by Lindsay Posner. It explores the undercurrents and eddies which exist within families and how our lives are all shaped by the responsibility we take, or do not, as the case may be. It's Ibsen with palm trees. It succeeds because Baitz has a thriller writer's grasp of narrative and it contains a stunning plot twist, which I won't spoil but which makes the audience come out questioning all the assumptions they might have held about the characters. Baitz is a moralist and this is a play brimming with ideas and politics but it is never dull.
The fictional Wyeths are a sort of Ronnie and Nancy Reagan manqué; with the real Reagans referred to as family friends. Lyman, played with great sensitivity by Peter Egan, is an ex movie star turned Republican party grandee and former Ambassador. His wife, Polly, the magisterial Sinéad Cusack, is a former screenwriter whose studied formality is combined with a steeliness which would make Barbara Bush look like a flibbertigibbet. They are enjoying a cosseted country club retirement in Palm Springs.
In echoes of Albee's A Delicate Balance, there's also a drunken aunt seeking refuge under their roof. Silda, played with great brio by Clare Higgins, (relishing a rare supporting role), is being helped back on her feet and so has the resentfulness of the dependent.
Brooke has arrived with a manuscript of her memoir which is about to get published and serialised in The New Yorker and which digs up the family's big skeleton, namely that a few years previously her brother, Henry, who was a radical and a drop–out, committed suicide after being involved in a terrorist bombing of an army recruitment center, during which an innocent janitor was burned to death. She blames her parents' ideology and cruelty for Henry's plight, but as we find out there are two sides to every story. The play carefully unpacks the ethics of a writer exploiting for profit or notoriety a personal family tragedy. It also deals with a contemporary generation of young people who, as Polly puts it, expect a "free pass". What does she want from them by doing this and what can they give her?
Baitz is writing here about a literate and intelligent group so one can forgive dialogue this crisp and polished, but it does at times recall The West Wing, on which he worked, where you often wondered how people could be that articulate in the middle of a heated row.
Sinéad Cusack is simply a wonder. The hub of the piece, her great achievement is to make us root for a character who at first sight seems totally unsympathetic. "Families get terrorised by their weakest member" she quips, believing the world is made up of those who make a mess and those who are left to clean it up. It's a performance that will linger in the mind and make you think twice about the next well coiffed Republican matron you meet.
This great play, following David Lindsay Abaire's Good People at the Hampstead and soon in the West End, demonstrates yet again that we're currently blessed by the quality of new American writing on the London stage.
Buy tickets: www.oldvictheatre.com