The Old Vic has been transformed for Other Desert Cities; the stalls have been stripped out and rebuilt, the stage dragged forwards, and scaffolding erected where the stage previously was to create a new, in the round, theatre space. The stage is now a squared dais shoved into the midst of the audience, and for the first in approximately a year of in-the-round performances, has been furnished with a pair of wood and suede seats, some brick and beige flooring, and a drinks cabinet which perfectly evoke the open spaces of a wealthy California home.
Other Desert Cities takes place in Palm Springs, one of those numerous desert cities in the desert sprawl outside Los Angeles, in the Christmas living space of retired, or perhaps self-exiled, GOP grandees Lyman, former movie star turned former ambassador, and his wife Polly Wyeth. Added to the mix are their son Trip, writer of terrible but popular reality television, Polly’s broke, recovering alcoholic sister Silda and finally Brooke, their daughter, a depressive writer who has fled California for the embrace of the East Coast, and has returned home for the first time in six years to talk about her new book.
For much of the piece Polly looks and feels like the villain. Played by Sinéad Cusack with cast iron control and cast iron make-up, she sits at the centre of the first two hours, a slowly turning spool of toxicity. Politically and personally unforgiving, Polly savages every member of her family except her husband and generally sets teeth on edge with her brand of bullying characterised as forthrightness. Then it turns out ditzy, drunkard Silda is cut from the same cloth, and is also spooling the family in but turning in the other direction, and everyone snaps.
For the first twenty minutes or so the play feels almost too American for the London stage; it’s a hodgepodge of grating accents delivering flat lines loudly, with that peculiar mix of glibness and over-sharing that we identify with the worst kind of Americanisation of the arts. Through this first part the play is shot through with moments and lines of exciting steel, and once the initial bombastic family scene ends and we become privy to a series of smaller and more intimate interactions the play begins to build momentum, shifting away from the heavy-handedness that characterised the outset and into genuinely excellent drama.
The jokes are for the most part terrible – an endless series of straight up fastballs that let the punch line hitter swing for the bleachers every time. Unfortunately when the audience can see where the pitch is going, the thrill of the hit is diminished: Biaritz made his name and honed his craft working on The West Wing and writing Brothers and Sisters, and Sorkin’s quick talking and political guile have rubbed off, but the deftness of touch has not quite to the same effect. Trip’s jokes are uniformly terrible, and his speech about being a classic Hollywood screw-up (with “maybe” a sex addiction and an affair with a Russian woman twice his age) is excruciating, but on the flip-side Silda Grauman (Clare Higgins) is riotously funny from start to denouement.
The play draws its dramatic development from a historic family tragedy, around which Brooke has written a book, the circumstances of whose writing and the content of which are used to draw the lines for the generational and political struggles. The play does suffer to an extent from this underlying tragedy being overly dramatic, with tinges of Patty Hearst and Homeland where something more banal would have sufficed, but these are still potently drawn portraits of contemporary Americans left to stew in a desert hothouse. The conflicts between public and private life, liberal and conservative media, true and imagined memory are emotive.
Heavy topics, but for the most part, adroitly handled.