O'Neill, Miller, Williams, Albee. More recently Tracy Letts with August, Osage County. There's a glorious line of American playwrights who have torn apart the myth of the all-American happy family and left it in shreds littering the stage. Now it's time to add another name to the list.
Jon Robin Baitz's play is the kind of family drama that might be more at home at the Royal Court or the Donmar than in a big space like the Old Vic. So full marks to Kevin Spacey for taking the risk of putting it on. There's a tip-top cast, including award-winners Sinead Cusack and Clare Higgins, but on the evidence of last night this production may be struggling to find an audience, even after excellent reviews. It shouldn't be.
Like many of the great American family dramas, this one has an acute sense of time and place. The time is 2003 and the location is Palm Springs, the desert retirement zone for Hollywood royalty like the Wyeth family. Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan) is a famous movie actor and ex-ambassador, and his wife Polly (Sinead Cusack) a scriptwriter. With friends like the Reagans and their country club prejudices against 'lefties', these deeply Republican conservatives are confronted by the reappearance of their liberal daughter Brooke (Martha Plimpton), who has flown in from the east coast to show her parents the manuscript of her new book.
The set is a classically simple furnished circle, placed at the centre of the reshaped Old Vic auditorium. There's a gaudy Christmas tree and some desert palms sprouting incongruously. These people are false, rich, hidebound and blinkered. 'I read it in the internet', says Polly. So we start instinctively cheering for Brooke as she starts to gouge lumps out of her parents, with a bit of collateral damage thrown at younger brother Trip(Daniel Lapaine), producer of a vacuous reality TV show. Brooke, recently divorced from a British husband, has spent six years on this book and is poised to renew the literary success of her first novel.
Except that this book isn't a novel. It's an explosive family memoir about how her parents drove Brooke's elder brother Henry to suicide. This particular skeleton comes tumbling out of the closet early on. The parents are a well drawn couple. Lyman seems the more human of the two while Polly is, at least on the surface, an ice queen who keeps her emotions tightly under control. But Baitz, as well as be able to write cracking dialogue, is a master of structure. The first half of the play contains just enough in the way of subtle hints to suggest that these parents are more than just selfish stereotypes. Just look at the way they helped Brooke through her bout of depression, or the way they have taken in Polly's appalling alcoholic sister Silda (Clare Higgins), now temporarily dried out.
It's hard to analyse the structure of the play without giving away a crucial turning point in Act Two, which took me genuinely by surprise. If you are familiar with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this is a comparable twist. Baitz turns the story very deftly on its head after leading the audience up the garden path. Our view of the characters is forced to change radically, but the switch is completely believable. This is no longer about whether Brooke has the right to earn literary success by dishing the dirt on her family in a no-holds-barred book.
What's it really about? Love, truth and lies, I think. As one character says, the important thing in life is 'how you loved'. The paradox is that the family keep talking about loving each other, but they have been torn apart by lying to each other. When the truth finally emerges, they are reconciled. Love is sometimes incompatible with honesty. Though they stop lying to each other, they continue lying to everybody else. The play closes with Brooke reading from a rewritten memoir, a few years later. It's a subtle and ambiguous scene, superficially upbeat but the subtext is devastating. She knows, and so do we, that she's hiding something.
Higgins is a bit under-employed in her role as the shambolic sister. Before the play comes to its climax, she is effectively sidelined, as is Trip. Cusack delivers an Olivier-winning performance as Polly and Plimpton, the only American actor in the cast, is terrific as Brooke. Egan is also excellent, but this is a mother-and-daughter play in which the other three characters are secondary.
At the interval I felt the play's setup was just a tad conventional and predictable; at the end, I didn't feel that at all. It's a model of construction by a writer who isn't well known here but should be. Baitz shows a masterly ability to control his material. The play has a political background in Reaganite California, but it's not really about politics at all, more about the complexity of family life. Trip's cheesy TV show is called 'Jury of your Peers' and it's more than a cheap joke. We are all on the jury here.