In drama, a Christmas tree in one corner and a well-stocked drinks trolley in another generally spell trouble – and Other Desert Cities (given its UK premiere in the beautifully reconfigured Old Vic in-the-round) does not disappoint. No matter that several family members in Jon Robin Baitz’s astute drama have Jewish roots: they still produce a Christmas family bust-up in style. And the play itself belongs to a family of its own: the dramatic tradition of examining the heart of America through a domestic microcosm. Here we revisit the polarisation of political ideologies in 1960s and 70s California and consider its legacy. The fallout is symbolic, gripping and fabulously delivered by Lindsay Posner’s cast. But there’s something just a little too strategic about it to make it really fulfilling drama.
The setting is Palm Springs, 2004 (the play’s title refers to a Californian road sign, though it also evokes the Iraq war). Gathered for the holidays are handsome couple Lyman (Peter Egan) and Polly Wyeth (Sinéad Cusack), both staunch and active Republicans, their adult son Trip, daughter Brooke and Polly’s sister Silda. Soon emotional thunder is rumbling. We learn that Brooke has had a breakdown and Silda is a recovering alcoholic. And Brooke has written a book, a memoir about the tragedy that defines all of them: the split between the parents and their oldest son, who, 30 years previously, became a radical anti-war activist and committed suicide. Should she publish? Should she tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts?
Fuelled by drink and righteousness Brooke and her mother go head to head on the issue. Finally, in a coup de théâtre, the parents reveal to Brooke why her take on events is flawed. It’s a play partly about blinkered histories, the danger of certainty and the control of narrative. As Trip (Daniel Lapaine), the moderating force, points out, everyone’s view is partial and no one is right. The play suggests that understanding that much might be a starting point towards bridging the ideological chasms in US politics. But though its concerns give it wider resonance, they also hamper it: the characters start to become mouthpieces and lose your sympathy.
The play bristles with one-liners, though, and is performed with real zing by an excellent cast. Clare Higgins is very funny as the drily wicked aunt, Martha Plimpton catches Brooke’s combustible combination of defiance and vulnerability and Cusack is outstanding as Polly: so brittle she daren’t give an inch or she might crumble.