BritishTheatre

Published on

March 22, 2014

REVIEW: Other Desert Cities, Old Vic Theatre ✭✭

By

stephencollins

OtherDesertCitiesOldVic

Other Desert Cities

Old Vic Theatre

21 March 2014

2 Stars

A theatre director has several key responsibilities: to develop and implement a concept or vision for the text which will work with the text and make the production relevant, understandable and involving; to lead a team of other creatives to share in the implementation of that concept/vision; to understand the characters well enough to ensure the actors can create them; to select a cast who can do what is required; and to coax from everyone involved their best work so that the production can soar in accord with the concept/vision.

To my mind, casting is always the key.

The greatest vision/concept in the world will flounder on the sharp rocks of miscasting. But cast well and flaws in the play or disconnects between text and concept/vision can be overcome. Great acting can cover for just about everything.

Bad acting will shine a light into every dark corner of any production, often a harsh, unyielding light.

Other Desert Cities, by Jon Robin Baitz, the man who created the television series Brothers And Sisters and who has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, once for this play, is now in previews at the Old Vic in a production directed by Lindsay Posner.

It is not the greatest play ever written but it is a solid piece of theatrical interest. It is an intimate family drama about secrets, lies, politics and passion; as well, it looks at the politics of the Republican Party in the US (fairly uncompromisingly), the pressures, demands and yearlings of being a writer and the things that love can drive one to do, good, bad and indifferent.

It's greatest strength lies in the fabulously complicated and deliciously real characters who belong in this most dysfunctional of families: Polly, the icy matriarch who famously stood up to Barbara Bush and her cronies; Lyman, the former movie star turned politician who has a degree in affability and universality; Silda, Polly's on-the-wagon alcoholic sister, whose rage at her reliance on her sister is as expansive as the Universe; Trip, the sex addict younger son who makes television for the masses but has inherited all the diplomatic skills necessary to manoeuvre around the minefield that is his family; and Brooke, the depressive, gifted writer who has not had a good day since she was told of the suicide of her older brother, her best friend.

One Christmas the family are gathered for festivities when Brooke announces she has written a book about the death of her brother, as she imagines it played out. Her hatred of Republicanism fuses with her idealised notion of her lost sibling to ease her personal suffering. The book is a vicious attack on her parents, their friends and beliefs. It threatens to shatter the family forever. And, as a result, the family tell each other truths they have never faced, or shared, before.

Polly, Brooke and Silda are three wonderful roles for women; in New York, they were given life by Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths and Linda Lavin.

The West End did not fare so well.

When the cast list was announced for this production, I assumed Claire Higgins would play Polly. She has the gravitas, the voice, the icy withering gaze and fundamental hardness that Polly needs, for Polly has surrounded her heart in steel since the loss of her eldest and that strength, isolation and determination are fundamental to her being. But, no, here the role is played by Sinéad Cusack an actress with all the steely resolve of blancmange and a gaze that constantly threatens to dissolve into tears rather than stand down Barbara Bush.

Cusack is entirely miscast as Polly and, as a result, the whole play is thrown off-balance.

Cusack wants to be loved; Polly doesn't. Cusack whines; Polly doesn't. Cusack foreshadows; Polly doesn't. Cusack makes a sound like a startled rabid bandicoot when Brooke announces she will publish her book; Polly doesn't. Cusack can't walk in a straight line in high heels; Polly can.

Cusack's inability to come close to the real Polly is made all the more tragic by Higgins' presence, wasted as Silda. Not that she is not a fine Silda, she is, but she could have been a great Polly and, actually, Cusack probably would have made a good Silda opposite her.

Higgins is best here when silent, watching or thinking. The look of unadulterated lust she bestows upon the Whiskey bottle. The harrowed look of pain as she watches Brooke hear her mother promise abandonment. The odd long-ago and far-away look she throws at Lyman every now and then. The gleeful abandon as she prepares to pounce on Trip for his joint. Every element of Silda is there: all Higgins needs to really work is a good Polly.

Martha Plimpton struggles to find Brooke, largely because she has no Polly to properly bounce off. But find her she does, and the opening of Act Two, when she and Daniel Lapaine's Trip are in deep discussion about their parents, is the highlight of the production. They work together as brother and sister and they spark off each other, allowing each other to do their best work. The play really sings at this point.

Plimpton carries off the final scene with great aplomb, better, indeed, than Rachel Griffiths did on Broadway. Perhaps because of Cusack's false Polly, Plimpton can add layers of warmth to Brooke which are believable and comprehensible. Whatever the reason, her piquant speech at the launch of her book is quite something.

Lapaine is actually excellent all round as Trip. It's a difficult role because he has relatively little to do but be the go-between between his parents and sister and the buddy to his sister and Aunt. But he also manages, entirely without dialogue, to convey, in a complex and fascinating way, the anguish he has suffered in the shadow of a lost elder brother and a grieving elder sister. This Trip is used to being out of the family spotlight, indeed prefers it there, and there is no sense of his having had an indulged life, so Lapaine's provides both a stark contrast to Brooke and yet is clearly her adoring fan. It's an excellent performance.

There is a moment in Act Two, when Lyman is talking about survival, when he says something like "It was just acting and that came easy to me". When spoken by Peter Egan here, these words sound ironic, at least, and horrifically inaccurate. Because the thing Peter Egan cannot do is play Lyman Wyeth, not easily or at all. Like Cusack, he is completely miscast. He cannot do controlled rage, simmering disquiet, outright anger or broken distress - all of which Lyman has to exude at one point or another. There is no through line for this Lyman: it's all bitsy, bad acting complete with plodding and stomping and hangdog expressions. His "No comment" exit is cringeworthy.

He plods around the stage like a woebegotten Paddington Bear, all doleful expressions of blank idiocy. There is no sign of a former statesman, a wealthy entrepreneur, a worldly man or even a father and husband. His is a chunk of marzipan awash in a sea of gooey sentimentality and overplayed self-effacing nothingness. It is horrific to watch him drown in the part.

Posner must shoulder the blame here. This is the wrong cast for this play and if he thinks otherwise he ought not be directing this play. Equally, he permits (or perhaps requires) Cusack and Egan to twice hint at the hidden secret which lies at the heart of the unravelling family dynamic. There is no need for this and, indeed, it cuts right against the grain of the characters and the situation. And the drama. It is not necessary for the audience to be "prepared" for what happens; far better, it just happens. Let the shock fall as it ought given the nature of these beautifully written characters. A good director would do just that.

The Old Vic is back in In-The-Round mode and so there is a greater intimacy with the playing. This proves fatal with this cast; the distance of a proscenium might have assisted Cusack and Egan, but as it is, their every move is closely exposed.

This is a poorly cast and conceived production of an interesting piece of contemporary drama. It should have been much better than this here.

But it's worth seeing for Lapaine, Plimpton and Higgins.

If only Claire Higgins had played Polly...

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ABOUT BRITISHTHEATRE

BritishTheatre.com
Opening Night Media Ltd
3rd Floor, 80 St. Martin’s Lane
Covent Garden
London WC2N 4AA

The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


We are constantly developing the site and are always open to receiving feedback from our readers. Join our mailing list to be kept informed of all the latest news that is of interest to you..