Monday 26 June 2017

Other Desert Cities

When I started reading Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities I thought I’d enjoy it more than I ended up doing. I also thought I’d read it quicker than it recently took me to read a 500 page novel but that wasn’t the case either. The play is a s(t)olid contemporary American family drama. It’s not on the same grand scale as Letts’ August: Osage County and it doesn’t reach the same detail or depth of Karam’s The Humans. It’s Christmas Eve, 2004, in the Wyeth family in Palm Springs. Lyman is an old-school movie actor from the heydays of the Hollywood studio system. He and his wife Polly (a former screenwriter with her addict of a sister Silda) were once-respected Republican figures and friends of the Reagans. Their children Brooke and Trip are home for the holidays. It is the first time in a while that Brooke has visited from New York and she has returned with a yet unpublished memoir about the mysterious suicide of her brother Henry, once involved in a radical left wing group that bombed an army recruiting centre. Her book lambasts Lyman’s and Polly’s rejection of Henry, suggesting that they put their politics and friends before their son.

There are several good things about this play, but I simply felt that they amounted to nothing more than… good. I completely realise that this may be because I read it over a period of a few weeks whereas in the theatre it would boil down to (one would hope) a few hours. I thought I’d try to break down what is notable but also quite standard about Other Desert Cities, mainly because I thought it’s a good idea for a blog post but also because yesterday – at time of writing – I saw a play, Common, which doesn’t adhere to all of these typical tropes which made for a very different theatregoing experience; not necessarily better but certainly more unique.

A Place
There’s potency in the play’s Californian desert setting. It is a hiding place for the Wyeths away from the spotlight. It’s a dry place full of Republicans and old-garde MGM actors in retirement villages, a cultural world away from the liberal New York where Brooke has made her life. The desert surrounding Palm Springs can also be associated with Baghdad and other war zones near other desert cities. Place, then, is heavily linked to social/political commentary.
Whilst reading it I visualised the play in-the-round because I know that’s how the Old Vic production was staged.

B Plot twist
If parts of the first act spoon feed you exposition, you forgive it thinking there will be a good payoff later in the play. And, indeed, there is a good plot twist at the end. Early talk of suicide notes and memoirs makes you think the plot twist will rely on a letter like Miller’s All My Sons: a bit heavy handed a device but one which dramatically and emotionally does the job. In the end, the plot twist is perhaps predictable but it actually doesn’t matter as it’s the fallout of the family of which Baitz is more interested. Then again, a short last scene set six years later neither offers nor teases that much in terms of those relationships.

C Characters
The Conservative parents versus the liberal daughter; the son somewhere in the middle; the inebriated, hypocritical aunt who’s reliant on Polly but who supports Brooke; parents who apparently rejected their son but temporarily moved to New York to care for Brooke after she had a breakdown; Brooke feeling torn between familial loyalty and her need to write in order to redress what she doesn’t understand about her close brother’s death and for the sake of her own mental health. Clashes and rivalries occur and it makes for some crackling dialogue and fiery arguments, much in the tradition of 20th century American classics. There are also a fair few nods to O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night what with Lyman being a once-famous actor, addiction affecting the characters, and parent-child disagreements. And all of the characters hold up pretences and facades in some way.

I was imagining Martha Plimpton from the Old Vic production as Brooke but, for some reason, John Lithgow as the dad, Lyman, and a minor character from Frasier as the mum, Polly.

So do A+B+C make a play? Maybe but, as entertaining as Other Desert Cities is, not a hugely innovative one. What the play is, though, is a modern dysfunctional family drama in the vein of a Miller, Williams or O’Neill play, etc. It is subtly about politics and culture in different parts of America, as well as the benefits and problems that arise in giving voice to marginalised voices in the form of a memoir.

Some favourite lines:
Polly: I think living on the East Coast has given you the impression that sarcasm is alluring and charming. It is not. Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals. (P.9)

Brooke: … I forget how hallucinatory it can be here on the West Coast. (P.26)

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