Robert Tanitch reviews Other Desert Cities at The Old Vic, London SE1
Jon Robin Baitz’s American family drama is an articulate debate about the legacy of Californian Republicanism and is set in Palm Springs, a place to retire to and escape from reality. The title is taken from a highway sign: Palm Spring/Other Desert Cities. But it also feels as if it is a reference to the war in Iraq.
The house is the home of a former ambassador and his wife. He had been a famous movie star and she and her sister had been successful screenwriters of film comedies. They are Republicans of the old guard and friends of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The year is 2006 and it’s Christmas Eve.
The daughter, a blinkered depressive of Leftist persuasion, returns home after six years with a very nasty present. She has written a memoir about the suicide of her brother, a drug addicted hippie. Anti-war, he had turned revolutionary and taken part in act of terrorism some 30 years earlier. She blames her parents and their politics for his death.
The Old Vic has been transformed into an elegant theatre-in-the-round and there are excellent performances in Lindsay Posner’s production.
Sinead Cusack is the caustic mother, a seeming monster. Peter Egan is the father, once a Republican, always a Republican. Claire Higgins is the alcoholic aunt just out of rehab and brittle. Daniel Lapaine is the brother who produces TV reality shows which have nothing to do with reality.
Martha Plimpton is the daughter, described by Baitz as an artist in despair, a dangerous creature, who, somewhat unbelievably, expects her parents (accused of being right-wing sociopaths) to give her lethal and biased memoir their blessing.
Other Desert Cities will appeal to adult audiences who enjoy a good debate. The build-up is excellent, politically and emotionally gripping. The denouement rings false and the coda is unnecessary; but this does not negate the enjoyment of all that has gone before.