Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz opens a new season at the Old Vic that sees the venue transformed into a theatre in the round. Love it though we must, the Old Vic is a barn of a place and the new intimacy created by the set up is much welcomed. The play is a strong piece that could surely hold its own in any venue, but this skillfully written family drama, full of political ambitions, benefits greatly from the reconfiguration.
Depressed New Yorker Brooke visits home in Palm Springs for the Christmas vacation. Gifting her right-wing parents Polly and Lyman with a tell-all memoir puts an end to any holiday spirit. Along with more than their fair share of family tragedy, domestic conflict comes from politics; the older Reaganesque Republicans (Sinéad Cusack and Peter Egan are utterly convincing) opposed by “hopelessly high brow” Brooke, performed superbly by Martha Plimpton. Adding to the agenda are alcoholic hippy Aunt Silda (Clare Higgins) and younger brother Trip (Daniel Lapaine) who provide some insight from the millennial generation.
Pulitzer-nominated Baitz has been a success on Broadway and is well known for his TV career (Brothers & Sisters, The West Wing). He joins hit American writers doing so well in the West End at the moment and seems very keen to have written a big American play. There are plenty of influences, Albee the most obvious, so it isn’t startlingly original. Topicality and politics are the important things and, although it seems slightly heavy handed, at one point even melodramatic, the play’s ambition is impressive.
The characterisation is very good. And the cast lives up to the strong writing. In a moving performance, Egan helps reveal a deeper character than we suspected. Likewise, Lapaine makes his smaller part stand out, while Higgins comes close to stealing the show. Great subtlety is invested in the central female characters Polly and Brooke; the writing seesaws our sympathy between the cold yet loyal, domineering mother and the selfish suffering of her brilliant child. It’s clever and complex stuff.
Until 24 May 2014
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 26 March 2014 for The London Magazine