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Witty or ethical? Condemning or compassionate? Charming or emotionally vicious?
The delicate balance of the theatre of Jon Robin Baitz is a unique form of American drama that both embraces and defies tradition. “If Arthur Miller married Noel Coward, their baby would be Robbie Baitz,” according to Andre Bishop, Artistic Director of the Lincoln Center Theatre.
“I would never find it useful to be labeled an important voice, Baitz told me a few years ago. “What is empowering to me as a writer,” is reading, writing, being stirred by the life I live, by notions of love and responsibility and citizenship in no particular order.”
Whether or not Baitz finds it useful, important is what he has become. For nearly thirty years, he has artfully coupled the personal to the political in complex comedy-dramas that inspired The Los Angeles Times to call him, “obsessed with the thorniest moral problems of our time.” At 50 years old, he has reached new heights of success: Other Desert Cities received the Outer Critics Circle Award, five Tony Award nominations, and was a 2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Born in Los Angeles in 1962, Baitz (known as “Robbie”) considered himself “ a depressed and unsettled kid. I think I wasn’t at peace with probably any element of who I was, whether it was a sort of nascent intellectual, or sort of pre-expressive homosexual.” His family moved a lot including to apartheid-torn South Africa where he spent his teen years. In writing, he found an outlet for his separateness. After moving back to Los Angeles, Baitz worked for two Hollywood producers which inspired his first play, Mizlansky/Zilinisky, a one-act that earned him an LA Weekly Award at the age of 22. Next came The Film Society (1985), based on his South African boys school, and with it came intimations of wunderkind.
He eamed national acclaim for The Substance of Fire (1991), the story of a family book publishing business torn apart by changing values. In defining his distinct voice, The New York Times wrote: “Baitz is specifically concerned with morality not only of the individual but also of the society the individual helps to shape…he has a gift for familial confrontations that are vicious, funny, and brutal.” In 1996, he wrote the autobiographical A Fair Country (Boston premiere 1998, SpeakEasy), a critical portrait of his parents. Other works include Ten Unknowns (2001) and The Paris Letter (2005).
After twenty years on the East Coast, in 2006 Baitz returned to California to write a series for ABC-TV called “Brothers and Sisters.” What began as a smart family drama centered around divisive cultural politics under network pressure devolved into a night-time soap opera. Baitz fought back and was subsequently fired. “There was just no place there for what I was trying to do—an entertaining meditation on class and position in America,” he explains. “I left Los Angeles, and I went out to my little Sag Harbor house, and I sat in silence for almost a year…I was in pain, volatile, and unfit for human company. I had forgotten how to write.”
Slowly, his disillusionment transformed into the inspiration for a new play. He recalls, “I was sitting at a beach with my notebook, thinking about what matters to me…[how] I had written about personal events that implicated other people in some way. I hadn’t taken into account the consequences. I found myself like the character in Other Desert Cities, a writer who is a dangerous creature. I had a note to myself: play about daughter of a famous family who writes a book about growing up in this family…the danger of telling the truth that turns out to be a lie. And at that moment, this lady of a certain age walked by, and she looked to me like Pat Buckley, the old doyenne of New York conservative politics. I’d had lunch with her once, and found her to be charming and engaged. And I immediately felt the mother in the play. I suddenly remembered California, the way it was when I was a kid…and the play just came together in one fell swoop.”
Audiences and critics were elated at the results. Baitz had returned from exile and was rewarded with his first Broadway hit. Times critic Ben Brantley proclaimed Other Desert Cities, “the most richly enjoyable new play for grown-ups that New York has known in many a season…literate, thoughtful, and well-tailored. Built with gleaming dialogue, tantalizing hints of a dangerous mystery, and a structural care that brings to mind the heyday of Lillian Hellman… it’s his most fully realized play to date.”
Jon Robin Baitz, the responsible artist-as-citizen, is determined to reclaim American theatre as the place for ideas and social discourse. And he is audacious enough to believe those kind of plays can be entertaining. “There is an audience that has been abandoned by just about everything else in public life,” he says. “These people are still hungry for political dialogue. Maybe we owe them something.”