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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
OTHER DESERT CITIES
at the Old Vic

POLARISATION IN THE USA
By JOHN NATHAN

  Daniel Lapaine and Sinéad Cusack/ Ph: Johan Persson

Apart from safe bets such as Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn, Kevin Spacey has always been much more at home programming American, rather than British, plays at The Old Vic. And in Jon Robin Baitz's family drama he's chosen one of two excellent American plays that have arrived in London recently.

The other one is David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, which received its UK premiere at the Hampstead Theatre and is to transfer to the West End. That play revealed that Americans are almost as riven by class as the British. Baitz is more interested in familial and political fissures.

Designer Robert Innes Hopkins takes full advantage of the Old Vic's reconfiguration from old school auditorium to a much more intimate in-the-round space. We're practically sitting in the minimalist, Palm Springs living room of Lyam (Peter Egan) and Polly (Sinéad Cusack) Wyatt. It's 2003 and they are hosting a Christmas family reunion that is warily attended by their adult children, reality TV producer Trip (Daniel Lapaine) and blocked, one-book novelist Brooke (Martha Plimton). Also present is Polly's sister Silda (Clare Higgins), an outspoken recovering alcoholic who snipes at Polly's Texan WASP credentials by harping on about their Jewish roots.

On one level, Baitz has written a post-9/11 play that reflects the polarisation of American politics. Brooke's East Coast liberalism is at constant odds with the Republican loyalties of her parents. And Baitz cheekily constructs a backstory for Lyam – a former B-movie leading man – that closely mirrors Ronald Regan's. But partly because Nancy is referred to as an old friend in the GOP, as characters the Wyatts feel much more like convincing constructs than off-the-shelf rip-offs.

The ticking bomb here, however, is Brooke's new book – not a novel, but a memoir about her late brother who killed himself after the anti-establishment group with which he became involved protested against the Vietnam War by planting a bomb in an army recruitment office. A janitor – a Vietnam veteran – was killed. Brooke's book will reignite the scandal that, first time round, nearly destroyed Lyam and Polly's standing in the Republican Party. And so on another level Baitz is interested in whether a writer's responsibility is primarily to his or herself. Not that Brooke has much choice about the subject of her book. “I don't have an imagination,” she confesses. “We are all I have,” she says of her memoir, which is, after all, the antidote to her writers' block.

With great skill, Baitz, who is best known in the United States as the creator of the TV series Brothers and Sisters, integrates the political and the personal. There's perhaps an unseemly amount of emoting and self-expression on the subject of love and loyalty, as is often the case with American writing. But Other Desert Cities, which takes its name from a Palm Springs road sign, is far more intelligent than it is sentimental. Lindsay Posner's production is terrifically acted by the British/American cast. Particularly by the women. Plimpton transmits the fragile desperate determination of a writer jealously guarding her work from criticism, and Higgins is a wonderfully subversive presence. But the stand out performance here is the glacial poise of Cusack's Polly, who refuses her daughter's pleas, or hopes, for a blessing. 

Compared to the class consciousness of Good People, British audiences may take less well to the political nuances of Other Desert Cities. But coming hardish on the heels of the Pulitzer-winning Disgraced last year, it's becoming a predictable thing that some of the most thrilling new drama on the London stage is American.

 


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