Robert Coleby and Rebecca Davis in Other Desert Cities | Playhouse

It’s called the Anna Karenina principle: happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

But it doesn’t apply in this case, where the unhappy family is like most of the other unhappy families you’ve ever seen on stage.  Sophisticated, ultra-conservative, high-echelon American Republican couple (he used to be an actor who became a successful state governor) have retired to California’s Palm Springs. Their two adult children, the son a filmmaker, the daughter a writer, have returned home for Christmas, with news that is going to tear the family apart.

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Sound familiar?  It did to me, too, and not just because of the Reagan revolution links.  Then I remembered A R Gurney’s 1989 play  The Cocktail Hour, which has almost the same scenario, a playwright son who returns to his wealthy parents seeking permission to put on a play he has written about them, just as Brooke Wyeth (Rebecca Davies) in Other Desert Cities does here with her family memoir.

But we don’t need to detail the similarities between this and countless other family-feud Christmas-reunion plays. Desert Cities has been a hit on Broadway, was nominated for the Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, and has received acclaim wherever it’s been performed. It’s intelligent, earnest, sincere and has a devastating plot twist when the truth finally comes out about why the parents (Robert Coleby and Janet Andrewatha) don’t want Brooke to publish her memoir.

The cast of four are impeccable in their roles, so much so that they become types rather than real human beings, and only the son Trip (where do Americans get their first names?), played by Robert Coleby’s son Conrad, manages to display any real feeling. The set, which must have cost a motza, sums up perfectly the wide, empty, self-indulgent lifestyle of these people; Trent Suidgeest’s lighting, especially of the skies over the desert landscape, from which the family is safely protected by huge sliding glass windows, is superb; and the country-club costumes of the parents make a telling contrast to the relaxed, almost sloppy clothes of their children. Christina Smith has done well.

Why, then, was I so bored with this production? Maybe it was because I went on the second night, when all the adrenalin from the previews and opening night had died down. There was very little passion or energy in any of the performances — lots of raised voices and despair, but the only member of the cast who made any sense was the alcoholic aunt Silda, played supremely well by Vivienne Garrett. Her all-too-brief scenes were the highlight of the play for me.

All my friends who saw it on opening night thought it was brilliant, but I felt it was too déjà vu, too American for me. Maybe you could substitute the Gold Coast to make it speak to an Australian audience, but for me it was like Woody Allen on Prozac — and without the wit.

The details: Other Desert Cities is at the Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Complex until September 1. Tickets on the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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