By Jon Robin Baitz; Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | May 10-31
It’s fitting that Other Desert Cities has been advertised using TV drama Brothers and Sisters as a point of comparison, given that they share the same writer, Jon Robin Baitz. Brothers and Sisters, for those who don’t remember it, was a Sally Field/Calista Flockhart-headlined family drama that started off with promise but became increasingly soapy until an unceremonious cancellation in its fifth season.
The other play that Other Desert Cities has been compared to in the lead-up to Auckland Theatre Company’s production has been August: Osage County. Still the best show that I’ve seen the company produce, it casts a long shadow for any family drama they put on our stages, including this one. Other than being a family drama and of the same Pulitzer Prize blessed ilk, Other Desert Cities bares little similarity to that triumphant piece of theatre, leaning much closer to Brothers and Sisters. This is not a bad thing, but it is not altogether a compliment.
Other Desert Cities gives us a paradoxically waspy Jewish family with secrets to hide; secrets that are on the verge of being exposed now that their daughter, writer-liberal Brooke (Hera Dunleavy), is releasing a book that promises to out her family, namely her two ex-Hollywood and staunch Republican parents, Polly and Lymon (Sarah Peirse and Peter Hayden). Throw in a hippie aunt who is recently out of rehab (Silda, played by Elizabeth Hawthorne), and a reality TV producer (younger brother Trip, played by Adam Gardiner), and the play almost writes itself.
There’s no real way around the biggest flaw in this production: the script. You can put soap opera on any stage you want, dress it up with as many witticisms as you like (there are many of those and they provide intermittent delights), but it remains a soap opera. The play occasionally steps into profundity when it stops treating its characters like chess pieces and like real human beings, but for the most part it relies on a late-breaking twist for its effect—a twist that risks bringing the entire enterprise down like a sandcastle the moment any of its plot holes are examined. Meanwhile, the script relies on a lot of informed ability and clunky exposition to really get it going. The first act in particular feels like the pilot of a TV show that was never picked up, while the second act feels like the last episode of a show that was cancelled after the first season.
A final scene, an unnecessary denouement which intends to give resolution to the characters, but instead ends up expositional and dramatically bankrupt, stops the play dead in its tracks and lays it bare. This play isn’t saying anything profound about the human condition; it’s out there to keep an audience captive for two hours and then release them into the world.
This is not in itself a bad thing, and when the play stops and lets the cast act, it tips into greatness. Sarah Peirse and Elizabeth Hawthorne are obvious standouts. Peirse brings a gravitas and strength to Polly that makes concrete what everybody else says about her. The truths that Polly spits are not the fruits of an easy life, but the hard-earned truths of lifem and Peirse makes that real on her face. Hawthorne, still the greatest actress working in this country, has a smaller role as Silda, but it gives her room to breathe life into the play. She entirely understands the soap opera register that the play comfortably sits in, and she plays up her Silda for some necessary audience laughs, but towards the end of the play she also grounds Silda in her own dark secrets so authentically. These two actresses are the highlight of the play, and their occasional refusal to look at or acknowledge each other speaks volumes about a relationship we sadly never get to see.
Hera Dunleavy impresses as Brooke and when other actors threaten to steal a scene—or the entire play—away from the character, and she remains a strong anchor for the play to rotate around. She makes the most out of that final scene, somehow finding truth and meaning in a final action that as written, is unplayable. The men of the play, Peter Hayden and Adam Gardiner, have smaller roles still, but both fit in well with the cast, especially Hayden, who manages to go toe-to-toe with Peirse on full form and hold his own.
The cast are not helped by a frankly bizarre set, a rare misstep for the usually exemplary design of Rachel Walker. Although we are ostensibly in the upper class house of a family on the west coast of the States, specifically in Palm Springs, the set never effectively locates us in that house. There is very little furniture on the stage, with only a table and an odd crystal ball that sometimes gives off light on a very large shag rug, and while this occasionally produces the effect of looking at a snow globe, it doesn’t give the actors anywhere to anchor themselves, and they are often left floundering or standing where realistically they should be sitting. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like we are in this family’s house, and for a play that is so keen to remind us exactly where we are in America, and the world, it’s an unfortunate misstep.
I left Other Desert Cities feeling satisfied, but nothing more. It’s not a bad piece of theatre—there’s too much going on for it to ever be boring—but it’s only intermittently a good one. I’d liken it to a mid-season episode of Brothers and Sisters: it gives you comfortable drama, good dialogue, and good acting, but you don’t feel enriched by the end of it. If you want to see some of New Zealand’s finest actors act, Other Desert Cities is a worthy two hours. If you really miss that Sally Field/Calista Flockhart drama—and power to you if you do—then go see Other Desert Cities. But if you want to see theatre that makes you think or challenges you, then Other Desert Cities probably isn’t your thing.