Other Desert Cities

Ensemble Theatre, September 11 

Other res
Deborah Kennedy and Diana McLean. Photo: Clare Hawley.

If you think your family has awkward Christmases go and see the Wyeths at work. You’ll realise – amid the laughs – that yours is just paddling in the shallow end of the pool of ugly possibilities.

American playwright Jon Robin Baitz doesn’t just do wit, he does lines so razor-sharp the air molecules around the actors’ mouths are endangered. They are also so ruthlessly funny that you wish you’d thought of them, and inwardly cheer the characters on.

Boasting most of them are sisters Polly Wyeth and Silda Grauman, once a Hollywood script-writing team, and Deborah Kennedy and Diana McLean ensure every barb is a surgical strike. They lead an exemplary cast directed by Mark Kilmurry, with Ken Shorter as Polly’s ex-film-star husband Lyman, and Lisa Gormley and Stephen Multari as their grown-up children, Brook and Trip.

Baitz lures us in with a relatively chipper opening: just like Jaws, where a fun day at the beach gives way to buckets of blood. You soon sense the big shark circling, and it turns out to be a book Brook has penned about the family secret – or rather the episode her parents prefer to entomb.

It is 2004, and Polly and Lyman – sometime dining companions of Ronnie and Nancy Reagan – are such red-blooded Republicans they even support the invasion of Iraq. Brook, to put it mildly, does not, and Trip is too busy producing inane TV to care. “Nobody who takes pleasure as seriously as I do could possibly be happy,” he assures his depressive sister.

Wisecracking Silda survives on the smell of a scotch decanter, and her seemingly granite-hard sister can say, “I hate being fair,” and mean it. But Polly is sharp as well as sharp-tongued, and “Lots of locked doors in her dolls’ house” is her summation of her daughter. Has Brook, meanwhile, made the common mistake of prejudging and therefore misjudging those closest to her?

Conflict is everywhere, from the Christmas bloodbath being enacted by a Jewish family, to the way two L-shaped settees seem to be warring on Ailsa Paterson’s set.

Kilmurry and his cast serve an exceptional play brilliantly, and eventually the gnashing teeth and wit recede. “All that will have mattered,” Trip says of life, “is how you have loved.” He may have a point.

Until October 18.

Link: http://ensemble.com.au/