For Baitz, the ardent theater man, whose robust hit, “Other Desert Cities,” is making its Washington debut at Arena Stage, the great central mistake was thinking he might emerge unscathed from a bout with network television. He was enticed out to Hollywood several years ago with his friend, the actor-director Ken Olin of “Thirtysomething” fame, and together they created the family drama “Brothers and Sisters,” born on ABC in 2006.
A little more than a year later, Baitz was let go as executive producer of his own show, in the midst of a writer’s strike. The firing came after what he describes as a mostly frustrating experience dealing with the meddling of corporate overlords and the compromises and injustices encountered while working for an entrenched broadcast network, all of which made him combative and unhappy.
“I was in the wrong place,” he says. “I found I wasn’t well-suited for the network television patois.”
“Brothers and Sisters” soldiered on without Baitz, who returned to New York to slowly, and not without difficulty, resume his life as a composer of urbane plays, the work he’d been doing since he burst on the scene in his late 20s with “The Substance of Fire” (with a then-emergent Sarah Jessica Parker). Eventually, his return would lead to what may be the best play of his career: “Other Desert Cities,” the story of a wealthy retired couple, old-school celebrities and dyed-in-the-wool Reagan Republicans, visited in the Southern California desert by a politically liberal daughter who’s written a memoir filled with hurtful disclosures.
The play, which starred Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach, among others, did so well in an off-Broadway stint at Lincoln Center Theater that it moved to Broadway, where it ran for 261 performances and earned a Tony Award last June for supporting actress Judith Light. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and might have won both that and the Tony for best play were it not for a critical juggernaut by the title of “Clybourne Park.”
“Other Desert Cities” now is enjoying a vigorous afterlife. At least 10 regional theater companies are producing versions of it, including Arena, where, with a cast that includes Helen Carey and Larry Bryggman, it has its official opening over this weekend in the Fichandler Stage, under the direction of Kyle Donnelly.