Friday, 8 March 2013

Other Desert Cities, MTC, March 7, 2013 ****

By Jon Robin Baitz, Melbourne Theatre Company
Sumner Theatre, MTC, opens March 7 to April 17, 2013
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 7
Review also published in Herald Sun in print and online. KH 
In Sam Strong’s compelling production of Jon Robin Baitz’s Pulitzer-nominated play, Other Desert Cities, the Wyeth family is encased, like museum specimens, behind the glass walls of their Palm Springs home, while the audience peers in at their predicament.

Or perhaps they are more like caged creatures of prey as they squabble and tear at each other’s fragile skins, peeling away the carefully constructed, outer layers that protect them from attack and preserve their fiercely guarded family secrets.

Callum Morton’s minimalist, architectural design contrasts starkly with the emotional chaos that unfolds within its glazed walls.

John Gaden is composed and dignified as Lyman Wyeth, arch-Republican and former ambassador in the Reagan administration, while Robyn Nevin is cool, abrasive and controlling as his wife, Polly, a brusque, former Hollywood screenwriter.

They had successful careers and mixed with the Republican elite, but they now live in self-imposed exile to escape the blowback from their eldest son, Henry’s involvement with a terrorist group and his subsequent suicide.

It is Christmas in the desert, and the Wyeths’ self-absorbed, depressive and angry daughter, Brooke, played with doggedness and nervous energy by Sacha Horler, arrives to announce that she is publishing her scathing and scandalous, tell-all memoir about the family’s past.

Completing the family reunion are, younger son, Trip, a reality TV producer, played sympathetically by Ian Meadows with relentless cheer and tolerance; and Silda, Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister and former co-writer, portrayed with playful bitterness by Sue Jones.

Baitz’s dense, rapid-fire dialogue is acerbic and witty, building a picture of a fractious, dysfunctional but privileged family that cannot express love or affection without verbal parrying, controlling behaviour or thinly veiled abuse.

The play is set a few years after the 2001 Twin Towers attacks, but Henry’s terrorist act, it seems, occurred during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, making the timeframe inconsistent and the characters significantly older than they appear.

The opening reunion scene is cleverly grim and funny, but the second scene is repetitive and less effective.

However, the final denouement packs the necessary firepower to reignite this familial inferno when the characters, fighting from their respective corners and trapped inside their glass, boxing ring, finally and explosively expose their darkest family truths.

The holes in the time lines and plot are almost excused by the riveting performances and Strong’s intelligent direction that focuses on relationships, making this family a micro-version of the diplomatic world with its complex alliances and conflicts.

By Kate Herbert

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