By Andrew MacNiven
‘Other Desert Cities’ is a beguiling, darkly comic window into the tumultuous secret lives of the American elite. The acclaimed American playwright Jon Robin Baitz has crafted an incredibly witty and insightful script. It is no accident that the play has been lauded by critics and favoured with multiple Tony Award nominations, as well as being a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Presented by the Black Swan State Theatre Company and the Queensland Theatre Company, with direction from Kate Cherry, this Australian production does justice to its Broadway counterpart.
The action takes place over the course of a Christmas holiday at the Wyeth residence, in the rather sleepy and isolated resort city of Palm Springs in Southern California. Any air of Yuletide cheer or good-natured frivolity is quickly dismembered, as long-harboured family resentments, which have been bubbling under the surface, begin to boil over, and the angst and ire flow freely.
Brooke (Rebecca Davis) is a writer returning to the family home from the East coast, having recently regained her artistic vigour following a lengthy battle with depression and mental illness. The problem for Brooke’s parents, Polly (Janet Andrewartha) and Lyman (Robert Coleby), is that Brooke’s new creation is a revealing memoir with the potential to bring their finely cultivated, clean-cut image crashing down under a deluge of scandal.
Lyman and Polly are Reaganite Republicans for whom dinner at the country club and a constant veneer of respectability are paramount. Lyman is largely acquiescent to his wife, the plainspoken, languidly sarcastic (even though she herself blithely denounces sarcasm as ‘the purview of teenagers and homosexuals’) matriarch of the family. Polly has fought hard to carve out her share of territory, both temporal and spiritual, and will not relinquish any control over her dominion, even if this is to the detriment of her relationship with her daughter.
Brooke’s brother Trip (Conrad Coleby), a hedonistic television producer, and aunt Silda (Vivienne Garrett), a playfully anarchistic recovering alcoholic, add humour and nuance. The cast is made up of experienced and accomplished actors, whose fine performances give the audience the sense they are in the safe hands of consummate professionals. Each performer effortlessly imparts the notion that the unresolved tensions that exist stem from a shared familial mythos.
Davis’ performance conveys Brooke’s skittish, somewhat unhinged personality; indeed, as the conflicts and revelations pile up, the audience is given the distinct impression that Brooke has a tenuous grip upon her own sanity. Robert Coleby, meanwhile, possesses a charismatic assurance on stage that is redolent of the great Jeremy Irons.
The set, designed by Christina Smith, is imposing yet exquisite, evoking both the vaulted ceilings and costly accoutrements of an elegant mansion and the vast expanse of forbidding desert beyond the bay windows. 1960s Rock music is effectively utilised as a neat bookend between scenes and provides an emotional jolt to the audience.
‘Other Desert Cities’ is a mesmeric reverie, a household intrigue, a mordacious comment on the ubiquitous nature of drug addiction and a satiric riposte to the American Right.