Powerful family politics play out to the bitter end

By Ross Larkin

Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities is surely one of the more intriguing and gripping contemporary plays of the last decade. Unpacking the fragile segments of family politics saturated with love and lies, tension and grief – Baitz’s comedy drama reveals its inner belly at just the right pace.


The MTC’s version opened this week, to a very receptive crowd. Director Sam Strong has perfectly cast Robyn Nevin as the simmering Polly, doing everything in her power to suppress her past, while maintaining an edge of ruthless charm. Nevin is utterly convincing in her portrayal of a privileged, somewhat manipulative woman who is dangerously close to breaking down.

Daughter Brooke, however (Sacha Horler), enters with nothing left to lose, and very little tolerance for her family’s insincerities. Horler offers a tremendous balance of light, shade and the chasm in between. Her unwinding and revealing at just the right pace and level of authenticity showcases Horler as the diverse and believable actress she is. The beautiful aspect to Nevin and Horler’s performances is that one does not ever see them ‘working’: we cannot see the acting, we are only absorbed by the truth of the characters.

John Gaden as husband Lyman is equally fitting in his transformation from loving family man to nervous wreck. It’s a demanding role which could very easily fall flat with a less-experienced actor or under the wrong direction. Gaden doesn’t disappoint with his direct and uncompromising performance.

Ian Meadows and Sue Jones as son Trip and Aunt Silda respectively begin as borderline caricatures, with pantomine gestures and postures. Fortunately, however, in spite of restricting themselves initially to exaggerated comic relief, Meadows and Jones do manage to absorb themselves in the unfolding drama, and by the end, both deliver powerful punches.

An obvious choice was made to stage most of the family drama in a living room behind large glass windows, to create the feeling that one is on the outside observing the action, like trapped fish in a bowl. While this technique was aesthetically interesting and in line with the play’s concept, it did, at times, prevent complete engagement between audience and drama. There was literally a wall between us, which more than likely prevented some great opportunities for intimacy.

Nonetheless, Strong has achieved great momentum with Other Desert Cities, helped in no uncertain terms by its brilliant lead actors, and this remains one of the most riveting and unforgettable plays of our generation. 

Venue Southbank Theatre, The Sumner

Season dates 2 March to 17 April 2013

Tickets from $58, Under 30s just $33

Bookings Southbank Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 or