Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Theatre: Other Desert Cities

Black Swan State Theatre Company
Written by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Kate Cherry
Set and costume design by Christina Smith
Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest
with Janet Andrewartha, Conrad Coleby, Robert Coleby, Rebecca Davis and Vivienne Garrett
Heath Ledger Theatre
Until August 4
pic: Gary Marsh
Black Swan has, for the second time running, mounted a production that improves the material it’s working with. In Joanna Murray-Smith’s Day One, a Hotel, Evening, director Peter Houghton, designer Tracy Grant Lord and a strong cast made a more than satisfying entertainment from an improbable and inconsistent text.
Other Desert Cities, Jon Robin Baitz’s story of familial and political disintegration against the background of lotus land America, has some similar flaws, but they don’t diminish the sparkle of his dialogue, the magnetism of his characters and the quality of the play’s architecture.
The play is given an immaculate, CinemaScope reading by director Kate Cherry; it's dressed to kill by designer Christina Smith (once again producing a set for the Heath Ledger you’d spend your lottery winnings to live in) and lit with technicolor glamour by Trent Suidgeest. In the face of such excellence, there’s not much point picking over the script’s occasional shortcomings.
The Wyeths live in elegant retirement at their Mid-Century Modern spread in Palm Springs. Lyman (Robert Coleby), a former shoot-em-up film star turned ambassador and GOP luminary and his wife Polly (Janet Andrewartha), a succesful scriptwriter who shares her husband’s conservative activism and world view, have Polly’s alcoholic sister Silda (Vivienne Garrett) staying with them in rehab. Their son, Trip (Conrad Coleby), a breezy LA-based reality television producer has driven the 90 minutes down the I-10 (past the Palm Springs/ Other Desert Cities freeway sign of the title) to celebrate the 2004 holiday season with the family. His writer sister Brooke (Rebecca Davis) has arrived from New York, but celebration is far from her mind. She’s got with her a time bomb, an advance copy of her memoir of the family’s history, focusing, excruciatingly, on the suicide, some thirty years before, of her elder brother Henry after being involved in the deadly bombing of a Vietnam War-era recruiting office. Brooke has struggled through years of clinical depression, a failed marriage and, before and above all, the memory of her lost brother and the bitter emptiness he left behind in her.
(I can’t believe, given the importance of American cultural literacy to Baitz’s writing, that the choice of Wyeth as the family’s name is coincidental – but if you want me to try linking it to the crippled girl crawling up the slope to the house on the hill in Christina’s Life, you’ve got another think coming.)
Over one day and night (and two hours on stage) the explosive contents of Brooke’s book, and the concomitant relationships between the five members of the family, play out, driven by Polly’s scalpel wit, Lyman’s diplomatic elusiveness and Brooke’s ruthless determination.
There’s much political and personal parry and thrusting, all conducted in glittering, combative style. There’s also constant repairing to a cocktail bar that would turn Mad Men green with envy (but was a little incongruous and unfeeling in front of someone like Silda, trying to stay off the stuff).
While all this is happening, the twist in the tale that dominates the play’s second act is almost imperceptibly introduced into the torrent of conversation in best blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Agatha Christie fashion.
Everything comes to a head in a whirling, albeit a little glib, climax where, finally, all the family’s cards come face up on the table. Each character is exposed, and each gets to stake their position on the family, its other members, and the outside world.
That’s the great strength of the piece, and it’s greatly enhanced by the crackerjack cast Cherry has assembled for it.
Janet Andrewartha is a glorious Polly Wyeth, sharp as a tack as she dominates the play’s early going. It’s a memorable part; Stockard Channing was triumphant in the role on Broadway a couple of years ago, and Andrewartha is here.  
Robert Coleby is a perfect foil for her, and more besides. His Lyman Wyeth, uncannily like John Kerry at times, is all poise and civility until he, too, breaks under the strain. Vivienne Garrett is a terrific Silda. She’s so convincingly cast as Andrewartha’s sister, her pickled, delicately balanced resistance to the Wyeth’s button-downed Republicanism finally betrayed by a secret of her own.
The surprise package is Conrad Coleby’s Trip. He’s an inspired casting as his father’s son, of course, and he nails that sunny, Californian assurance absolutely. Trip is, for as long as he can be, the honest broker between his family’s factions, and Coleby makes his good-natured clarity entirely consistent and believable.
Brooke carries much of the text’s weaknesses, and Rebecca Davis’s performance suffers because of it. Brooke is so unyielding, so stony, and so broken, and the part so overwrought and overwritten, that there’s no emotional journey for Davis to take as an actor.
It’s easy to dislike Brooke, but I suspect it’s not the character, or the actor playing her, but the part as written, that is so frustrating and, ultimately, repellent.
We are in a golden age of television, largely because the best writers have taken the opportunities it now offers for sharp, observant comedy and long-form drama. It’s a two-way street, and Other Desert Cities, despite some imperfections, is a fine example of the return of character and dialogue-driven theatre that results.
Black Swan have done it justice, and more, in its most satisfying and entertaining production so far this season.

Mark Naglazas ran his practiced eye over the production. Link here to his review in
The West Australian

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