Left – Rebecca Davis and Janet Andrewartha. Cover – Rebecca Davis, Robert Coleby and Janet Andrewartha. Photos – Gary Marsh
Many may walk out of Other Desert Cities disappointed. It isn’t particularly bold or complex theatre-making. It’s a family drama with shades of commentary on politics, mental illness and integrity. There’s a great deal of crying and family disagreement. As a matter of taste, it’ll have more than its fair share of detractors.
However, it’s actually one of the best productions Queensland Theatre Company have delivered in quite some time. Years, even. There are flaws – American accents slip, actors overreach and lines fall flat – but, taken on its own terms, Other Desert Cities is smoothly crafted and deeply evocative theatre.
The premise of the work has a nice twist of originality to it. The upper-class American Wyeth family have gathered for Christmas Eve. Already divided by political outlooks (actor-turned-senator Lyman Wyeth having raised a brood of left-leaning children), their relationships are tested further when daughter Brooke Lyman announces her plans to release a memoir chronicling the death of her disgraced elder brother Henry.
Jon Robin Baiz’s script is a very professional piece of work. Occasionally marred by some horrendously over-the-top lines and a certain predictable rhythm, it’s nevertheless sufficiently well-crafted as to flow naturally, maintain a cohesive narrative and transform bog-standard character cliches (conservative country club parents; crazy aunts) into relatively believable and affecting individuals.
In this instance, it’s greatly assisted by an unusually strong cast. Vivienne Garrett’s accent frequently slips in the play’s emotional moments – but her grasp of aging matriarch Polly Wyeth’s conflict is phenomenal. That said, it’s father and son Robert and Conrady Coleby – as father and son Lyman and Trip Wyeth, respectively – that truly dominate proceedings. Conrad Coleby, in particular.
As Lyman Wyeth, the elder Coleby delivers yet another excellent performance. He does a wonderful job of balancing the stoic conservative values and quietly powerful affection of Lyman Wyeth with more complicated flavours of anger, guilt and obligation. Conrad Coleby, though, almost steals the show as a side-character. His performance as youngest child Trip Wyeth – determined to play Switzerland in family conflicts – is full of nuance.
He’s a great example of the play’s contradictory appeal. It’s a very traditional piece of theatre and Trip Wyeth’s seemingly-amoral reality TV show producer is a pretty stock-standard character motif that the script readily milks for laughs – but, much how the script sneaks in slyly original commentaries on topics like mental illness, Conrad Coleby quite slyly brings a great deal of depth to his character.
There are definitely a number of distracting shortcomings in the work. Rebecca Davis never quite seems to find a way into the troubled character of Brooke Wyeth and frequently over-reaches. It also get frustrating when Garrett’s Polly Wyeth transitions from Texan to Australian in the play’s most emotional moments. Even Baiz‘s script stumbles towards the conclusion.
For the most part, though, Other Desert Cities is a beautiful show. It’s a surprisingly humble little work for two state theatre companies. It doesn’t aim for much more of an outcome than a story well-told and, fortunately, it succeeds. Well worth your time.
Queensland Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company present
Other Desert Cities
by Jon Robin Baitz
Director Kate Cherry
Venue: Playhouse QPAC, QLD
Dates: 10 August – 1 September 2013
Tickets: $80 – $45