Other Desert Cities runs at Melbourne Theatre Company from 2 March – 17 April. By Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Sam Strong.
As readers of my blog will probably be aware, I do the majority of my theatre reviewing in Sydney. However, I recently found myself in Melbourne for academic purposes, and so I thought I’d check out some of what’s going on down there. And so I went along to Other Desert Cities, Sam Strong’s (late of Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company) directorial debut in his new position as artistic associate at Melbourne Theatre Company.
This is a very fine script. This is not exactly a secret –it was nominated for a Pulitzer, so this is hardly a groundbreaking observation. Other Desert Cities is the story of a family in crisis. Brooke (Sacha Horler) and Trip (Ian Meadows), the children of Republican senator Lyman Wyeth (John Gaden) and his hardass wife Polly Wyeth (Robyn Nevin) have come home to Palm Springs for the holidays. Brooke has shocking news to tell her family: she has written a tell-all memoir about the life and death of her older brother Henry, who rebelled against his parents and who Lyman and Polly turned away when he needed help the most. This memoir, if published, will rock the Wyeth family to the core. But, as we learn over the course of the play, there is far more to the story of Henry than Brooke knows. The truth – if there is one – is more complicated than her perspective.
One of the most common things that writers get told is to show, not tell. I completely understand why this is useful advice for writers starting out; however, this play is a testament to the power of storytelling (emphasis on the telling) and the fact that sometimes action is more powerful in retrospect. Truth becomes splintered and multiplied in Other Desert Cities, refracted through all the perspectives of the characters. Everyone has their own version of the action, different pieces of the puzzle, different narratives that they have lived by, stories they have told.
The reason writers get told to show, not tell, is so they don’t fall into the trap of having characters talking about the interesting stuff that has happened rather than allowing the audience to see what actually happened. Other Desert Cities has almost a story within a story: it is the story of the disparate reactions of the Wyeth family to the disparate versions of the Henry story. The script is strong enough to break the show-don’t-tell rule – we are definitely more invested in the how-people-react story rather than the what-actually-happened story. However, the danger with this kind of narrative is that it can become sedentary – a bunch of people talking without anything actually seeming to happen. I measured the places where the narrative flagged by the woman sitting next to me: when things weren’t happening, psychologically speaking, for the Wyeth family, she would promptly fall asleep. This is not to say that the show was in any way boring, because it wasn’t. However, she did provide a remarkably accurate barometer as to when interesting tensions were being exploited as opposed to when characters were simply sparring or bantering. Sam Strong’s direction was taut enough that she didn’t fall asleep often. The scenes she drifted off in were largely those involving Trip, and I was sad for her, because I really enjoyed Ian Meadows’ work in this production. His character is caught in the middle of the battle between the Wyeth parents and Brooke, and so he becomes somewhat extraneous to it, but he had some great moments. (I would totally watch that trashy reality courtroom show he works on. So hard. I love the way that, in a play which deals so much with ideas of truth, his daily work was on reality TV, the fakest truth there is. It was so perfect.)
One of the cleverest things about this show was the set. As soon as I walked in and saw that glass box on the stage, my mind went straight to the Simon Stone place, but I feel like the glass was symbolic in a different way here. The glass reflects the truth as we see it, but we can also see through it to something else. Transparency and truth were one of the major preoccupations of the play. In the first act, characters can pass through the transparent space of the house, skirting it but not addressing it. In the second act, when truths are revealed, they are contained within it, transparency becoming a prison, truth doing the opposite of setting them free. This was cleverly mirrored by the swimming pool at the front of the stage: it too reflected back an image, but if you tried to penetrate too deep, you could drown (just like Henry).
I feel like Other Desert Cities could easily have become static and dull, but in the deft hands of Sam Strong, it is a deeply engaging and moving piece of theatre. The cast is magnificent – I have already mentioned the work of Ian Meadows, but I would be remiss not to note the wonderful work of Sacha Horler and Robyn Nevin also. John Gaden tended a little towards the melodramatic in certain moments on occasion with his portrayal of Lyman, but his performance was nonetheless wonderful and nuanced, as was Sue Jones’ performance as Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister. Don’t let the woman who fell asleep next to me put you off: this is a great show. It engages cleverly with ideas of story, truth, and performativity. It is funny without letting the humour overtake the story at its heart: humour, in this show, is just another way the truth is deflected.