PALM TREES ,POLITICS, LITERATURE , LOYALTIES..
With a fine dramatic flourish the Old Vic is again a theatre-in-the-round, as it was six years ago for the Norman Conquests. The refit (they kept the kit in storage) works astonishingly well, perhaps best for seats in the northern arc, and suits the breathless, concentrated living-room intimacy of Jon Robin Baitz‘ clever play. It’s set (great palm-trees) in an affluent Republican home in Palm Springs, California. And there’s too grand a twist, too melodramatic a reveal, for spoilers to be forgivable.
But I can mention that in a brief flash-forward coda, Martha Plimpton as the daughter Brooke (a performance of marvellous intensity, alternately pitful and loathsome) stands at a lectern reading at some literary festival. Describing her father’s deathbed she makes ironic observations about his dementia and the “ochre and umber” sunset outside. Ah yes: we’ve all read these overwritten, hypersensitive ich-bin-zo memoirs. And that final moment underlines the important theme running all through Baitz’ depiction of a combative family Christmas Eve. Sharp and witty himself, he understands the temptations of authorly self-regard and the creeping novelization of memory. When her family plead with her not to publish a memoir, Brooke utters lines like “You’re asking me to shut down something that makes me possible…the only obligation I have is to myself”.
We meet them all first in tennis kit: Peter Egan and Sinéad Cusack as well-groomed parents in shining whites, the lounging son Trip (Daniel Lapaine) laughing about the ironic mock-trial TV show he produces. Brooke, in scruffy T-shirt and leggings, is full of East Coast political correctness and horrified at her mother’s breezy recommendation of the “Chinky” food they do at the Country Club. It is all beautifully drawn, Lindsay Posner’s cast immaculate: loose-limbed Trip keeping the peace, Egan affably senatorial as a former Hollywood gunslinger who became a George Bush Snr ambassador, and above all Sinéad Cusak superlatively watchful, poised, suggesting depths of difficult self-control beneath a facade brittle and often hilarious as a wife who learned “order, precision and discipline” from Nancy Reagan. No fool she, but a Vassar girl who used to write for Hollywood: though “once it became all about drugs and lefties whining, I was out”.
They are joined by the alcoholic aunt Silda – Clare Higgins in assorted knock-off garish prints – who unlike her sister has not smoothed over her roots. “You’re not a Texan, you’re a Jew. This Pucci is more real than your Barbara Bush shtick”. Brooke is the catalyst for chaos: veteran of one literary novel, a nervous breakdown, and divorce from what her brother calls “a sad wet Brit, like Lord Byron’s faggy cousin”. The author’s note calls her “an artist in despair, a dangerous creature”, but wisely lets Trip burst that bubble with “Depression doesn’t make you special, it makes you banal”. The disputed memoir concerns her elder brother who joined an anti-war hippie cult, was complicit in a murderous firebombing and drowned himself. In Brooke’s world view her parents are right-wing sociopaths who destroyed him. But hey, maybe even Republicans love their children, and truth is elusive and writers can be dishonest too. As Trip says in a marvellous, Salingeresque inter-sibling scene, “You turn Henry into a saint of the ‘70s, all patchouli and innocent questioning. But…”
That’s the setup. It’s too good a thriller, too subtle and shifting in its sympathies, to tell you more.
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