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The Theatreguide.London Review

Other Desert Cities
Old Vic Theatre       Spring 2014

The best American dramas have a common thread, the ability to address large issues by focusing on a small domestic story. This 2010 play by Jon Robin Baitz reaches for and almost achieves that before taking an unexpected turn that disconnects the specific from the general.

But its almost is intriguing and its specific story remains engrossing even after it loses its larger resonances. 

Baitz's larger subjects are two the responsibilities of the artist to those who may be affected by the art, and America's shift to the political right in the past forty years, which he sees as a remnant of the culture clashes of the Vietnam War era. 

His play is set in Palm Springs California, enclave of ageing rich conservatives, largely from Hollywood, the sort who take pride in having had Ron and Nancy Reagan as personal friends.

One such couple have an adult daughter who has written but not yet published a memoir that exposes a family tragedy from the 1970s and interprets it as the fault of her parents' blind self-righteous Republicanism.

(Also present are an ineffectual son/brother who just wants everyone to get along and an alcoholic sister/aunt imported bodily from Albee's Delicate Balance to make critical comments and wisecracks.) 

The parents, unsurprisingly, are offended by their daughter's manuscript, as much by the invasion of their privacy and the re-opening of old wounds as by being cast as villains, and the bulk of the play is devoted to arguments over who owns the moral high ground that unforcedly evoke the political and cultural clashes of four decades ago, demonstrating how alive they still are. 

But then, in the final twenty minutes of the play, Baitz essentially rejects everything that has gone before as irrelevant. 

Without giving too much away, let me just say that a big piece of information which has been withheld not just from us but from most of those onstage is revealed, completely changing the family's story from one of conflicting values to one about the equal burdens of knowing and not knowing secrets. 

Where the first three-quarters of the play had encouraged us to take sides and to see that a clash of principles almost a half-century old is still controlling the American debate, the play ends by saying that in this particular case there is no moral high ground, just those who know all the facts and those who don't.

It remains dramatically involving, but in a more sentimental and soft-cored way. 

One certainly can't fault the play's theatrical energy and the two strong roles of mother and daughter, ably played here by Sinad Cusack and Martha Plimpton. 

Occasionally channelling Joan Crawford, Cusack creates a monstrous portrait of a woman whose entire being is wrapped up in being not only on the right but in the right, while still letting us see brief flashes of fear that her world and world view may be crumbling. 

Plimpton invests the daughter with a messianic fervour that doesn't completely disguise the fact that to a large extent she is just getting back at Mommy and Daddy because her life hasn't been perfect. 

Of the other three, Daniel Lapaine is most successful in creating a real character out of the ineffectual brother, with Peter Egan perfectly capturing the kind of nonentity this wife's husband would have become but as a result being almost invisible onstage and Clare Higgins unable to do much with the underwritten role of the alcoholic. 

The Old Vic has been rebuilt in the round, as it was a few seasons ago, and director Lindsay Posner, while deserving some credit for the two strong central performances, too often leaves half the audience watching actors' backs at key moments.

Gerald Berkowitz

Review - Other Desert Cities - Old Vic 2014
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