Wednesday, May 28, 2014

California Dreaming...


A few weeks ago we saw GOOD PEOPLE by David Lindsay-Abaire, a recent off-Broadway play about the echoes of the past catching up with a woman and last week we saw another recent off-Broadway play about, um, the past catching up with a woman.  I guess when it comes to American imports there are only seven stories.

The Old Vic has reconfigured it's auditorium for Jon Robin Baitz' OTHER DESERT CITIES so it is played in the round and it was great fun to sit in that familiar theatre but with a totally new viewing experience.

It was also a good choice for this play.  I suspect if the play had been presented within it's proscenium arch it might not have been too involving.

Baitz has had a career on both stage and small screen - he was the creator of the Sally Field TV series "Brothers and Sisters" - and towards the end of the play The Big Reveal had all the elements of a end-of-season cliffhanger.  For the most part I enjoyed it but, as with most plays that arrive here garlanded with awards and the praise of NY critics, the overall feeling is one of thinness.

The play takes place in the luxurious Palm Springs home of ex-actor Lyman Wyeth and his ex-scriptwriter wife Polly in 2003 against a backdrop of the first Iraqi war.  The Christmas family gathering includes daughter Brooke who has just flown in from her home in New York - immediate shorthand for 'rebellious daughter' - TV executive son Trip (oh those names) and Polly's outlandish sister Silda, who co-wrote with Polly in the 1960s and now spends most of her life checking in and out of rehab.

Brooke has not visited in six years as she has been struggling with depression while attempting a follow-up to her debut novel and she soon locks ideological horns with her Republican parents while Silda snipes from the sidelines.  Trip, who produces a courtroom reality tv series, is the voice for populism and just having a happy time.  Brooke has not arrived empty-handed however as she has brought the proofs for her new book: a family memoir that includes her older brother Henry, now dead after killing himself in a terrorist bomb plot.

Baitz' play has distinct echoes of Edward Albee's more enigmatic A DELICATE BALANCE - married, well-off couple are beset by the wife's alcoholic sister and their resentful daughter - but, while being a general state-of-the-nation play, his work mostly touches on the responsibility of the artist using their family as inspiration, the spiky relationships between siblings both old and young, and of course, the eternal push-pull atmosphere between parents and children.

As I said, Baitz delivers a plot twist towards the end which I felt reduced the play to a soap-opera but I guess it did set up a nicely poetic final scene for Martha Plimpton's Brooke.

What I enjoyed most about the production, which was directed with a good sense of pace by Lindsay Posner, was the three central female performances: Clare Higgins, Sinead Cusack and Martha Plimpton.

Clare Higgins played Silda with her usual hard-edged style but Baitz does not really give her a good meaty scene to let rip, this addicted sister was an oddly muted character for all the fireworks that were expected.  No such problems with Sinead Cusack who was excellent as the unapologeticly right-wing Polly, a mother who views her daughter as a total stranger - an addition to the Broadway cannon of unforgiving mothers.  Martha Plimpton has morphed from being a child star of the 1980s into an accomplished stage performer and, making her London stage debut as Brooke, she was always watchable and more than held her own against two of our most charismatic actresses.

The men had less chance to shine against these fine actresses but Peter Egan was less milquetoast than usual as the urbane father who cracks at the seeming betrayal of his daughter's family memoir and is the keeper of A Big Secret while Daniel Lapaine had good fun as Trip, exasperated by his warring relatives.

An enjoyable play with an excellent cast but one that seemed to choose a distinctly Hollywood ending.

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