In a well-staged MTC production, Jon Robin Biatz's family drama transforms holiday brawling into a debate over the politics of writing history
The family in this Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama is the Wyeth family, headed by Lyman Wyeth (John Gaden), father, former actor, former senator and current Republican fundraiser, and his wife Polly (Robyn Nevin), mother, steely willed political fixer and a former Hollywood screenwriter. These two, west-coast right-wing royalty, have retired to Palm Springs, CA, an oasis of luxury in the arid Coachella Valley.
Their two children, more-or-less adults and more-or-less politically liberal, have just returned home for the first family Christmas in years, and a mood of nervy optimism prevails. The Wyeth's daughter, Brooke (Sacha Horler), a New York-based author, has, after many years battling depression, finally finished her second book. It was immediately bought by a major publisher. Things are looking up.
Set designer Callum Morton and director Sam Strong have done brilliantly well with the family home, which is austere but stylish, very much in Polly's style, with a long, glass front facing the audience, sometimes closed, bottling the family, their emotions simmering, and sometimes opened out, allowing a more fluid procession of encounters.
What is Brooke's book about? The family is on tenterhooks. Turns out it's a memoir, as they feared, about the Wyeth's eldest son, who committed suicide after his involvement in radical-left politics led him to participate in the bombing of an army recruitment centre. What is worse – for Lyman and Polly – is that an extract from the book is just about to be published.
As tempers flare, the youngest sibling, Trip (Ian Meadows) plays peacekeeper. He appears to have been lifted direct from Death of a Salesman, although, as is Baitz's wont, is more ironically self-aware than Arthur Miller's Happy. Fundamentally he is also less damaged and – as a voice of blandly persistent reason – less interesting. More interesting is Polly's sister Silda (Sue Jones), a recovering alcoholic and fervent anti-neo con, who has been secretly feeding Brooke information about her parents for the book.
But the central conflict is between Brooke and her mother, two twigs of the one tree, each stubbornly convinced that their version of history is the right version. It is between these two that Baitz argues out the play's central moral question: what are the obligations of historians, politicians, memoirists and even parents who seek to exploit the past for contemporary political leverage?
The play wears its influences openly, from Arthur Miller to Tracy Letts, Patti Davis to Philip Roth. This honesty seems to hold it back from the more spectacular emotional involvements of works like August: Osage County and American Pastoral. Even as events reach their crisis and the truth – the real and only truth – is at last revealed, everyone seems suddenly disarmed, as though the magnitude of the secret makes literary squabbles seem trivial. A book? After all, they seem to shrug, it was nothing to get worked up over.
The energy, though, is consistent and the cast is strong, with the strongest, Nevin and Horler, balancing the story neatly between them. Meadow and Jones are fine comic foils, especially early on, while Gaden seems a little laconic, which works well enough for his character, sometimes less like a man and more like a man-shaped shell.
It'd be a surly village-churl, a backwater philistine, who denied the charm of this MTC production. The writing, the performances, the design, the direction ... check them off, very good, very good. And yet, and yet. And yet there is a nagging sense that this is just Another Desert Play, another middle-brow portrait of an American family scratching out its own eyes, lost in a moral wilderness. And it feels like Baitz knows this, but goes through the motions anyway, skilfully pushing round the family pieces, the same old moves, smoothly made, until, at last, endgame. Do the cast feel it, too? This detachment? Ian Meadows, for instance, seems to break the fourth wall several times in the first act, throwing mischievous glances at the audience. John Gaden elaborately cocks his eyebrow at us as he turns his back on the house. Even Robyn Nevin, as she gazes out into what is meant to be the desert, seems for a moment almost a mirage.
On the other hand, there is a pleasant modesty about this tendency to resist overt mythologising and emotional operatics, as though Baitz knows that before any family can be offered up as the next House of Atreus, it must first be a family, a real family, one evoking that familiar mix of sorrow and love, unhappiness and joy, all of which are elegantly suggested in the play's many quiet moments.