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Written by: Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by: Ross Jolly
Welcoming their family back home for Christmas, for the first time in six years, in the sun-drenched comfort of Palm Springs, California, Lyman Wyeth and his wife Polly have it all: wealth, fame and a political legacy of real muscle. But the warm desert air turns chilly when their daughter Brooke announces she’s written a tell-all memoir about the most painful chapter of the family’s history. Old wounds are re-opened, childhood memories are tested, and the Wyeth clan learns that some secrets cannot stay buried forever.
Pulitzer Prize-finalist Jon Robin Baitz’s smart new play of high drama, serious laughter and repartee that dazzles and decimates was one of the hottest tickets on Broadway last season. A sure-fire crowd pleaser.
“The Best New Play on Broadway!” - Ben Brantley, The New York Times
“Funny, fierce and immensely entertaining.” – New York Daily News
Starring Catherine Downes, Michelle Langstone, Jeffrey Thomas, Emma Kinane, Paul Waggott.
19 April − 17 May
Tuesday and Wednesday 6.30pm
Thursday to Saturday 8pm
Friends of Circa (until 4 May)
Groups 6+ $39 20+ $36
Under 25s $25
Astutely crafted to explode secrets
BY JOHN SMYTHE, THEATREVIEW, 21 APRIL 2014
Moral dilemma, political allegory and something to play out in our imaginations after the final scene: these are three things I love in a play and Other Desert Cities delivers all three superbly in this impeccably-cast Circa production directed by Ross Jolly.
Given Jon Robin Baitz, the playwright, created the TV series Brothers & Sisters, which ran for five seasons, and wrote episodes of The West Wing, it is no surprise that the family dynamics are riven with ambivalence, the dialogue is both loving and challenging, and the mix is potent. What we don’t get, in this single living room setting, is the dynamic camera work and editing. Amid all the talking, walking, drinking and smoking, it’s up to us to watch for reactions; to scan the room for what’s being felt by those not holding forth.
There is a lot I can’t say about the play because it’s all about secrets, which are also multi-layered. But the publicity does reveal that the complacent pleasantness of the Wyeth family’s Christmas gathering at the retired parents’ Palm Springs (California) home is torn asunder when one-time novelist daughter Brooke, whose first and only novel was published six years ago and now lives in New York’s Eastern Long Island, “announces she’s written a tell-all memoir about the most painful chapter of the family’s buried past that threatens to destroy everything her famous parents hold dear.”
Not that they simply explode. The Wyeths are, after all, adult, civilized, cultured and sophisticated in their quintessentially Californian way.
Before going into politics and being appointed Ambassador by Ronald Regan (we don’t know where), Lyman Wyeth, richly intoned by Jeffrey Thomas, was an in-demand screen actor. Gun-slinging and death scenes were his specialty, as splendidly demonstrated by Thomas in the play’s most physically active sequence. Being a diplomat and loving father, and watching his health (apart from the odd clandestine cigarette), puts downward pressure on what he is suppressing until it erupts, dramatically.
His wife, Polly (nee Grauman), is the more rabid Republican and while she no longer identifies as Jewish, that cultural trait of needling, challenging and baiting those she loves is ever-present. Catherine Downes plays her complexities with elan, convincing us entirely that she had the capacity to “face down Nancy Regan”, whom she’d regarded as her big sister and mentor in the devious power-broking of conservative politics.
Her less cultivated and politically processed sister, Silda, a recovering alcoholic, has a hard time finding her feet in this environment – not that she too doesn’t have a secret that’s also proves incendiary. Emma Kinnane pitches the ‘comic relief’ just right while commanding our empathy for her situation.
Contemporary Hollywood values are exemplified in the son, Trip Wyeth, who makes a TV ‘reality show’ called Jury of Your Peers which is really a ratings-grabbing ‘freak show’ he is happy to justify as harmless escapism. Interestingly he is not portrayed as a soulless, Californian cliché. Paul Waggott focuses on his youngest child status (he was five when ‘it’ happened, and has little memory of the older brother who is all but erased from family history). Trip turns out to have the most objective handle on the family’s behaviours and is the least emotive in judging them.
It all hinges round the daughter, Brooke, who has recovered from a mental breakdown and now penned her memoir in her quest for answers and understanding. Michelle Langstone is simply superb in this complex role, taking us with her over every step of the play’s ‘shifting sands’. Brooke’s brother-focused memoire is called Love and Mercy, which is exactly what she is seeking.
The dichotomies inherent in loving families where the children’s politics and value systems are very different from those of the parents generate much of the dramatic energy. People are often expressing love, physically and genuinely, while disapproving of the other’s actions – and this is where the allegorical resonance flourishes. Baitz captures the post ‘9/11′ state of USA politics potently within this family drama.
The uninspiring title relates to a road sign at the turn-off to Palm Springs. Brooke tells Trip she often has to resist the urge to keep on driving to ‘Other Desert cities’. I suppose if you see the Wyeth family as a desert where only cacti grow, the point is that other families would only prove more of the same. Could it be an attempt to reference the ‘desert storm’ wars inflicted by the Bush administrations and/or the cultural desert of US network television? Maybe, but it doesn’t do it for me as a title for this play.
Trust me: the climactic scene on Christmas Eve 2004 is well worth the wait. The final scene, set six years later in a Seattle book store, is a coda that simply makes me want to know more – to buy the book – or maybe just see the play all over again with the insight of hindsight.
The accents are faultless, thanks to coaching by Jade Valour. Sheila Horton’s costume designs express and enhance each character ideally without ever drawing undue attention to themselves, except where Polly takes it upon herself to critique Silda’s garment.
The set by John Hodgkins speaks clearly of conservative ex-Hollywood opulence but something seems awry on opening night with Marcus McShane’s lighting design, what with a structural post in the home throwing shadow on what I take to be the sky.
The publicity led me to suspect Other Desert Citieswould be something like August Osage County – Wyeths v Westons; Western Desert v Western Plains – but the family dynamics are quite different, and despite having a smaller cast it has a bigger reach in its political commentary. In some respects it could be called the All My Sons of the 21st century. But really it is its own astutely crafted thing and you will have to see it to understand why.
Laurie Atkinson, The Dominion Post (contains spoilers)
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (including interval)