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Review of ‘Other Desert Cities’

By Patrick Neylan

The lights go up and we walk out to the bar. We are – how shall I put it? – pensive. Finally my friend offers: “The set’s good, isn’t it?”

If it were the final curtain instead of the interval, that would be the kiss of death. As they say in musicals, ‘No-one comes out whistling the set’. Actually nobody came out whistling anything. Other Desert Cities isn’t that sort of play. But with Serious American Drama you can never judge till the final curtain and I don’t remember anyone whistling during Death Of A Salesman either.

My friend was right. Jan Greenhough’s set was hugely impressive: not spectacular – that would have been wrong – but an absolutely perfect representation of a wealthy Palm Springs couple’s retirement home, all stone and glass and sterile, air-conditioned comfort and offset by Emma Christmas’s crisp lighting design. There was also a beautifully presented set change for the final scene, with Brooke being prepared for a book signing silhouetted against an electric blue light-screen.

Serious American Drama is a challenge, but it’s just the sort of challenge BLT needs to accept. With about 15 shows a year, the theatre needs variety to keep the audiences interested and the actors fresh. Too many amateur societies have suffered death by a thousand Ayckbourns.

Not that Baitz makes it easy; certainly not for the publicity team. ‘Other Desert Cities’ is as drab a title as can be imagined and has little relevance to the story of a post-psychosis daughter visiting her ageing Republican parents, preparing to reveal that her next book will be autobiographical, telling the story of her brother’s act of 70s terrorism and subsequent suicide. You’re not going to get an audience looking for a good time.

There will be Issues. There will not be many laughs. The Pulitzer committee doesn’t have a sense of humour, which is probably why you seldom see an American comedy on stage. Eugene O’Neil, Henry Miller and Sam Shepherd cast a considerable shadow.

But apart from the marvellous set, it was already clear that Jane Buckland had assembled a splendid cast. At the centre of events is Brooke, played by newcomer Madeleine Jillian, full of prickly self-absorption, ready to blow the family apart by metaphorically digging up the corpse of her elder brother and with it exposing the family’s decomposing moral core. Her post-adolescent brooding constantly needles her controlling, manipulative mother Polly, played with arch selfishness by Wendy Jardine.

Their conflict simmers as the father, Lyman, tries to smooth things over while brother Trip affects an almost hedonistic indifference. Bruce Wallace as Lyman is used to playing smooth characters (remember his Humphrey in Yes, Prime Minister), but here that smoothness is tempered by the restraint of a man trying not to control but to maintain the veneer of civilisation. Benjamin Vorono as Trip is another newcomer, and he most impressed by trying not to impress, keeping his passion and animation in check till it was needed. As the only character not obsessed with the past – either burying it or digging it up – he was in a way the most human of them all.

Despite Brooke’s efforts, perhaps the most disruptive personality is Silda, Polly’s sister and an uncomfortable reminder that this most solid of GOP matriarchs and the most waspish of WASPs is in fact Jewish. Penny Cullen kept up this needling presence, while gradually bringing out the character’s passive-aggressive insecurity.

Given that the play is set in a living room, Jane’s direction avoided the nightmare of two hours watching characters circumnavigating the sofa. The characters moved naturally or sat still with assurance.

So with all these elements in place: cast, set, direction; the second half had everything it needed for a thrilling dénouement. It was now up to the playwright to deliver. Thankfully he did. The simple narrative of the honest daughter exploding the hypocrisy of her conservative parents was gradually, artfully derailed (for which cast and director deserve enormous credit as well as the playwright). We were left with a story of moral complexity and surprising compassion.