New American plays with family angst as metaphor for wider national political issues are much in vogue at present in London (see reviews of Rapture, Blister Burn, The Mistress Contract and Good People, shortly to transfer to the West End.)
Now the Old Vic kicks off its second theatre-in-the-round season with another full-bloodied American psycho-drama – Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities. And though there are criticisms to be made of some of its more heavy-handed contrivances, the theatre and the cast provide what can only be described as a richly satisfying theatrical experience.
For one thing, the Old Vic’s production team have created an arena so intimate you really can see the colour of eyeballs whilst the hand-picked cast of Sinéad Cusack, Peter Egan, Clare Higgins, Daniel Lapaine and American actress Martha Plimpton deliver soul-bearing performances befitting a play that confronts generational discord, counter-culture consequences and the rise of the Republican Right in a setting that recalls Tracey Letts’ August Osage County at its bilious best.
Leading the charge is Cusack, superbly Joan Crawfordesquely cutting as Polly Wyeth, the Texan born, Jewish family matriarch who claims tutoring from no less a model of decorum and strategic emotional gate-keeping than Nancy Reagan. Baitz who wrote the American cult tv series, Brothers & Sisters pours endless scorn on this epitome of establishment rectitude via her novelist daughter, Brooke (the rather wonderful Plimpton) returning to the family seat in Palm Springs to confront the family with her latest opus which after breakdowns and six years hard labour, is nothing less than a memoir of the secret that dare not speak its name in this household: the son who apparently committed suicide after murdering a Vietnam vet.
Baitz has a fine sense of tragi-comedy, a devastating eye for family dynamics and there is no doubting his fury. At the heart of other desert cities, apart from the merciless glare of California and the demolition of latter-day Republicanism, is the eternal question of betrayal and the carnivore that is the writer. When is it ever right to reveal all?
That, if nothing else – and there is much else – keeps other desert cities ticking along very nicely.