The Mirage Of Family Unity, In Other Desert Cities

Peter Egan as Lyman Wyeth and Martha Plimpton as Brooke Wyeth in Other Desert Cities. Photo by Johan Persson.

Peter Egan as Lyman Wyeth and Martha Plimpton as Brooke Wyeth. Photo by Johan Persson.

Other Desert Cities is so nearly a very good play. You can see why it was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. And you can see why it didn’t win.

Robin Baitz, a playwright who has also worked on grand TV dramas like The West Wing, has fashioned a taut and witty family melodrama with a brilliant central conceit. It’s Christmas in Palm Springs and the neurasthenic daughter of an uptight Republican couple is about to publish a memoir that will expose the tragic and shocking episode that punched a hole in their family some 20 years before. She presents a pair of proofs in plain white shoeboxes, which sit in the centre of the living room like two unexploded bombs. It’s a great Hitchcockian McGuffin with a whiff of Schrödinger’s cat.

The five members of the family then weigh in on the ethics of privacy, confession, political activism and family loyalty as they circle around the unopened boxes. The conversations are gripping and funny and continuously threaten to veer into more profound territory. But again and again, Baitz pulls his punches, having his characters openly refuse to go to the darker places that the uncompromising daughter Brooke (a boldly believable Martha Plimpton) is said to have done with her book. There is also a lot of crude plot exposition and when the final revelation arrives, it simply lacks any sting. The set-up unravels completely and everyone, including the audience, is let off the hook. What should have been a visceral punch in the guts ends up as a very un-cathartic pat on the back.

It’s a pity because the authoritative cast includes Sinéad Cusack and Claire Higgins, sparring wonderfully as two cantankerous sisters, as well as Peter Egan, channelling Gregory Peck as the unsteady patriarch. The performances are almost as scorching as the desert sun outside the villa, but ultimately the writing lets the actors down and the tension fizzles away. What could have been a savage x-ray of the American psyche in the manner of Arthur Miller ends up feeling detached and ironic, with the banal final message: Republicans are humans too.

Other Desert Cities is on at the Old Vic until 24 May 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

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