Set in-the-round at the Old Vic, Other Desert Cities brings a truly American family drama to the famous British stage. New York-based writer Brooke Wyeth (Martha Plimpton) spends Christmas with her parents in the Californian desert and only hours after her arrival drops a bombshell on them and her brother Trip (Daniel Lapaine): she is going to follow up her successful novel with another book.
After some initial merriment (Brooke has been severely depressed and is still taking antidepressants), she announces it won’t be fiction this time. Her manuscript, which she has brought with her and has already sold to a publisher, contains the real-life story of her older brother Henry; how he was ostracised because of his political affiliation and killed himself by jumping off a boat.
Brooke’s parents were the reason for this, being fully-fledged Republicans who counted Ronald and Nancy Reagan amongst their closest friends (and who are indeed both actors-turned-politicians, like Reagan himself). Henry turned out a left-wing radical, and his involvement (however indirect) in an act of political violence was enough to close the door on him indefinitely. The memoirs, it is sorely felt, will show Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Sinéad Cusack and Peter Egan, both on top form) to be heartless monsters in the autumn of their lives. The problem becomes clear and the lines are drawn: should the story be published? Jon Robin Baitz has written an intriguing first act and Lindsay Posner brings it all to life through meticulous and supremely engaging performances, all mounting up to the question whether this family will make it at all.
The second act offers a fast-paced and thrilling answer that I cannot disclose even in the slightest, except saying that the ingenious writing will have you laughing, crying and pondering on the bigger issues in life. The way California plays a role not quite in the background; the politics that enter private lives like thieves in the night; and, not least, the central figure of the writer struggling with family, truth and the ethics of her craft. The additional spice comes from Polly’s sister Silda (wonderful acting from Clare Higgins), an ex-alcoholic who seems to side with Brooke more and more and turns out to have an unexpectedly strong voice in the family business.
With its subtly shifting allegiances, reflections on American politics and the age of fear all condensed into an insightful view of a family at war, Other Desert Cities is a joy to watch and a rich experience that will not be forgotten easily.
Other Desert Cities is playing at the Old Vic until 24 May. For more information and tickets, see the Old Vic Theatre website. Photo by Johan Persson.