Maidment Theatre, Auckland

10/05/2014 - 31/05/2014

Production Details


Auckland Theatre Company’s Other Desert Cities, starring Sarah Peirse and Elizabeth Hawthorne, opens 8 May

A smart and biting, Tony and Pulitzer-nominated family drama opens at Auckland’s Maidment Theatre on 8 May. Auckland Theatre Company presents Other Desert Cities – a knock-out domestic dust-up in which secrets are currency and everyone’s loaded.

It’s Christmas in Palm Springs. After a six-year absence, Brooke Wyeth comes home to celebrate the festive season with her Republican parents, her apolitical, executive brother, and her liberal and alcoholic aunt. But the warm desert air turns chilly when Brooke announces the pending publication of her memoir – a dossier that will revive a shameful and embarrassing chapter in the family’s history.

Sitting somewhere between “comedy” and “thermonuclear family war”, Other Desert Cities is a richly satisfying night of theatre that brings together sizzling humour, intelligent writing and rich emotion to create a warts-and-all battle between truth and family loyalty.

Auckland Theatre Company’s production welcomes to the stage some of the country’s heavyweights in theatre and performance, including Elizabeth Hawthorne in her 90th professional stage performance, Sarah Peirse (Heavenly Creatures, Rain, The Gift) and Peter Hayden (Natural History New Zealand).

Auckland Theatre Company Artistic Director, and Other Desert Cities Director, Colin McColl said, “This Broadway hit from the creator of TV’s Brothers and Sisters is full of intellectual rigour and incisive humour. It is contemporary American playwriting at its most satisfying. The play will resonate particularly well with those who loved Auckland Theatre Company’s 2010 hit, August: Osage County.”

Other Desert Cities premiered Off-Broadway in 2011. It was named Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play by the Outer Critics Circle before transferring to Broadway. The production then received five nominations in the 2012 Tony Awards, including Best Play. Other Desert Cities was also a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Subscriptions are open for Auckland Theatre Company’s 2014 season. Subscribers are the first to hear about additional offerings and events throughout the year, before they are publically announced. This includes The Next Stage Festival of New Plays in Development, ATC’s youth development experience, Selecta, and the latest community event concept, Neighbourhood Theatre, at the Mangere Arts Centre.

Dates: 8 – 31 May, 2014
Maidment Theatre, Auckland University, 8 Alfred St, Auckland
Bookings: www.atc.co.nz or call 09 308 2383

For more information or to order a copy of the 2014 season brochure, please visit www.atc.co.nz.

Brooke Wyeth: Hera Dunleavy
Trip Wyeth: Adam Gardiner
Silda: Elizabeth Hawthorne
Lyman: Peter Hayden
Polly Wyeth: Sarah Peirse

Direction: Colin McColl
Set: Rachael Walker
Costume: Lucy Senior
Lighting: Phillip Dexter
Sound: Adrian Hollay

Alien behaviour highly entertaining

Review by Stephanie Johnson 15th May 2014

Polly and Peter Wyeth (Sarah Peirse and Peter Hayden) are wealthy Jewish Americans enjoying an easy retirement in Palm Springs. At least it would seem so, until Christmas 2004, when daughter Brooke (Hera Dunleavy) and son Trip (Adam Gardiner) appear. When the play begins Brooke has been home for three hours and already tensions are rising. Brooke is a writer, having one novel to her name and the manuscript of a memoir in her suitcase, which focusses on her version of a devastating family tragedy.

As is so often the case in wealthy families the children have left-wing ideals and the parents the diametric opposite. Friends of the Reagans since Hollywood days, Peter (once a movie star famous for his spectacular onscreen deaths) and Polly (once a television writer) believe, as many Republicans do, that they are liberal in their leanings. “I don’t have a bigoted bone in my body,” says Polly, who is rejoicing that this Christmas she doesn’t have to cook. Instead they’re going to the Country Club, where among the offerings will be “chink food”. “Who has Christmas at the Country Club?” asks Brooke. “Jews?” [More]


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Other American Plays

Review by James Wenley 13th May 2014

The desert looking back at us is not quite the one from the popular imagination: wind turbines populate the otherwise arid landscape. Is this a symbol of progressivism and human achievement, or a blot on the natural expanse? This dessert is Palm Springs, and the centrepiece of Rachael Walker’s eye-catching stage design is a massive white shag pile rug that covers the stage and rolls down the front step towards the audience; an opulence that tries to keep the Wyeth family’s feet clean and out of the dirt and sand. The stage is otherwise a barren blackness beyond the fractured screen prints of the desert scenography, and it all has the effect of marooning the characters in their own space. I remain struck by the visual incongruity of the wind machines: stuck, unmoving.  So too the Wyeth family at the centre of this play, stuck in the past, unable to move forward. So too the American nation as allegorised in this play: all too stuck.

The American political landscape of 2004 bubbles under the surface of the Wyeth family’s Christmas reunion in Palm Springs. The other desert cities of the title references the cities that lie beyond Palm Springs, but the otherness more urgently refers to the new orientalism: Iraq and the Middle East. When small talk turns to Iraq, it is quickly repressed: “let’s not do this”. There’s an atmosphere of fake conviviality, troubled by some seemingly intractable binaries: East Coast/West Coast, Left Wing/Right Wing. Polly (Sarah Peirse) and Lyman Wyeth (Peter Hayden) are Republican elite, showbiz stars (she a script-writer, he an actor cum Reagan diplomat), exiles from Democrat Hollywood. Brooke (Hera Dunleavy) is the black sheep of the family, a novelist and firm liberal who has returned home after a six year absence. She is overtly visually othered by debut costumer designer Lucy Jane Senior with her black trouser-shirt combo against her family’s crisp white holiday garments. Her brother, Trip (Adam Gardiner), stands in for the a-political Americans, a reality show producer that churns out entertainment opiate and quietly despairs. Polly’s estranged sister Silda (Elizabeth Hawthorne) is a further potential fire-starter. [More


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Compelling tale of family secrets and contrition

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 12th May 2014

In what is becoming a specialty for Auckland Theatre Company, Colin McColl has discovered another superb piece of contemporary theatre that plunges us into the miasma of recriminations, secrets, remorse and abiding love that make family dramas so compelling. 

In Jon Robin Baitz’s script the family functions like the Large Hadron Collider, allowing us to observe the fallout from lives propelled into an extreme emotional velocity and thrown together in a series of explosive and deeply revealing collisions. [More]


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Clever, searing allegory for America

Review by Heidi North 11th May 2014

Other Desert Cities by Pulitzer Prize and Tony-nominated playwright Jon Robin Batiz is at once a political allegory, a mystery, and a tense family drama.

On Rachael Walker’s sparse set, echoing the emptiness of the desert around them, the characters battle it out on the plush white shag pile carpet. It’s Christmas in California, the whole place parodies a traditional Christmas scene: white carpet for snow, wind turbines for Christmas trees, and a lamp for a fireplace.

Polly (Sarah Peirse) and Lyman Wyeth (Peter Hayden), both traditional Republicans upholding American values, are both pleased and nervous to have their daughter home for the first time in six years. Fragile writer Brooke (Hera Dunleavy) has battled depression and moved to New York in order to escape the vast endless sunshine of the desert.

They’re joined by brother Trip (Adam Gardiner), a hyper, porn-addicted TV producer who produces a trashy TV programme Jury of Your Peers, and Polly’s sister Silda (Elizabeth Hawthorne), an alcoholic who’s recently come out of rehab.

It’s Christmas, a time of joy and forgiving. Lyman in particular is determined to make this a safe space for his children to come back to, and for his own reasons doesn’t want to lose them by delving to deeply into their the family past or their fractured personal politics. Polly, parroting the party line, doesn’t believe in going lightly on anyone: if you treat people like invalids they’ll behave like them.

There are shadows, quickly revealed, that lie over this family. Shadows deeper than Brooke’s leftist values, and when Brooke plants a ‘bomb’ under the Christmas tree it’s only a matter of time before it goes off.

Politics are torn apart, secrets are exploded, and our assumptions about characters’ beliefs and motivations are turned in on themself. It’s astute and brilliant writing.

The final scene, six years later, is a sweet denouement, but my one gripe would be, it’s spelt out just a little too much. We get the subtext of Brooke’s words, without the need for her final last action. 

While all the actors play their parts well, the play rests on the performances of the parents, Lyman and Polly. An ex-Hollywood actor turned ambassador to Reagan, Lyman is likeable and loveable, and Peter Hayden captures his mix of vulnerability, truth with touches of the old showman in him, making his a heart-breaking descent as the family falls apart around him. 

However, the play is held together by Polly Wyeth. Sarah Peirse embodies this proud woman’s grit and class, and we believe she is the kind of person that could “face down Nancy Regan, reducing her to tears.” A carefully layered character, the depths of her love are difficult and complex. 

Overall, it’s a clever, searing piece of theatre; an allegory for America, told through the lens of one family. Other Desert Cities grabs you and holds you throughout, turning your ideas on their heads as loyalties and love are pushed to the limits. It’s well crafted by director Colin McColl and well worth seeing.


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