American playwright Jon Robin Baitz’ new play is a fiercely intelligent retrospective on California based Republican Party politics of the 1970/80s and the rebellious generation springing therefrom. Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan) is a Hollywood actor who has turned to politics late in life and, as we are told in an epilogue, lapsed into dementia after the events of the play; his wife, Polly (Sinead Cusack) is a hard-nosed socialite. So they are not too dissimilar from the Reagans, whose names pop up frequently, Polly’s claim to fame being that she once stood up to Nancy and won. Their daughter Brooke (Martha Plimpton) is a writer who has suffered from severe depression and their son Trip (Daniel Lapaine) is a feckless producer of low brow television shows. Making up the quintet of characters is Silda (Clare Higgins), Polly’s alcoholic sister. They gather at Lyman and Polly’s home in the desert city of Palm Springs to celebrate Christmas 2003, shortly after another Republican President has embarked on the Iraq fiasco, and the catalyst for the drama is the news that Brooke is about to publish a book which rattles the skeletons in the family closet. At first, the play seems to be no more than a left-leaning critique of right wing politics, but the writer is cleverly leading us down that path before delivering a second act knockout punch which reveals his true purpose – to show that, behind the superficial images that public figures always adopt and underneath all their regimented political posturing, exist real people living real lives. The strength of the play is that it does not takes sides in the political arguments, rather it shows the follies of polarised opinions and the collateral damage that can result from them. Under Lindsay Posner’s direction, the acting is quite superb and the company thoroughly deserved its standing ovation at the end. Peter Egan merits special mention, his Lyman being an authoritative but flawed diplomat; there are few dry eyes in the house when he delivers his revelatory speech, almost a confessional. Congratulations too to the Old Vic, now converted very successfully into the round; this production exemplifies the very best of the prominent theme of the Spacey era – strengthening the bonds between UK and US theatre – and it goes a very long way towards fully restoring the theatre’s reputation after the disaster of last Autumn.
Performance date: 17 April 2014