In the expansive living room of their bright Tribeca apartment, Jon Robin Baitz and his friendly, three-legged dog Trip both pad about restlessly, looking for comfortable places to alight. For the 51-year-old Broadway playwright, who recently underwent back surgery, this task proves especially daunting. Explaining that he’s under doctor’s orders, he stretches out stomach-down on an area rug, wincing as he reflects on lessons learned in a quarter-century of professional writing.
“I think everyone’s life requires a great central mistake,” he says, as Trip buries his nose in the cuff of a visitor’s pants. The activity distracts him. “What is he doing?” Baitz asks. Anyway, back to big mistakes: “I somehow convinced myself there was no such thing as selling out.”
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.
With its highly developed antennae for political currents and characters of sharp perspective and perception, “Other Desert Cities” is vintage Baitz, although as some colleagues point out, its success hinges more than most of his plays on a single revelatory turn in the plot (which won’t be divulged here). “The great thing about ‘Other Desert Cities’ for me was the twist,” says Keach, who, having never missed a performance, was with the play from start to finish in New York. “I think it’s Robbie’s strongest play from that point of view.”
Keach recalls that Baitz — known universally as Robbie — was an active participant in the rehearsal room, presided over by Baitz’s longtime romantic partner, director Joe Mantello, with whom he’d split several years before; they remain close friends. “A lot of playwrights, they deliver the play and that’s it, they step aside,” the actor says. “But Robbie’s very actively engaged.” Of the character he originated, Lyman — a rugged ex-movie star-turned-politician who seemed patterned on Ronald Reagan himself — Keach says it was Baitz who challenged him to go beyond his natural instincts.
“Robbie has very specific ideas about the play,” he reports, “and there was one section specifically when Lyman comes back and tells a story, and Robbie says to me, ‘I want to see “darker.” I was still playing off the actor’s charm. He was forcing me to go deeper and darker. It took me a while to find that color.”
It took Baitz a while, too, to find his voice after the experience of “Brothers and Sisters,” which left him shaken, a condition that he blogged about at the time for the Huffington Post. He wondered in print if he’d ever feel comfortable again in Los Angeles, where he’d gone to high school (Beverly Hills High, in fact) after a childhood in Brazil and South Africa as the son of an executive for Carnation International.
He retreated to a house in the Hamptons to try to sort out his “existential crisis.” It took Mantello, a man not known in the theater business for mincing words, to jog Baitz out of his torpor. “You know, Robbie,” the dramatist quotes Mantello as saying. “No one is waiting for the next Robbie Baitz play.”
In an odd way, it was, apparently, what Baitz needed to hear. The feeling that he had indeed betrayed himself by taking a corporate gig (and the big paycheck) had filled this playwright of progressive political values with shame, and, as he put it, “Shame is my cocaine.” Perhaps he needed to be reminded that nobody else was holding his Hollywood detour against him. At any rate, “Other Desert Cities” began to take shape in the confluence of themes that were running through his head.
That convergence had to do with a curiosity about the metamorphoses of political and personal identities in this country. “I had been working on another play,” he says, “about the way in which people’s politics truly emerged after 9/11, how 9/11 stripped away all the liberalism in some people.” That interest in the shifts in allegiance to liberal ideology gave way to a consideration of its opposite, conservatism, and how more moderate versions of it were in retreat
He was after, he says, “a new way of looking at well-intentioned conservatives who had not been watching the candy store, and while not watching, had it stolen by the right wing.” At the same time, he’d been reading “lots and lots” of biographies, and became intrigued by the tyranny of memory. “In memoirs, you implicate other people in ways they can’t possibly respond to,” he observes. “I guess I was trying to figure out what it is to be a writer and to lie at will.”
These themes are templates for “Other Desert Cities.” The comfortable dotage of Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Bryggman and Carey, in Arena Stage’s production) is thrown into turmoil by their troubled daughter Brooke (Emily Donahoe), who arrives from back East with the galleys of a memoir she’s written that contains painful details certain to shame her parents. On hand, too, is Polly’s sniping drunk of a sister, Silda (Martha Hackett) and Brooke’s brother, a producer of shlocky TV shows. The character’s name is a bit of an inside joke: Trip.
The more important Trip in the playwright’s life —a gift, Baitz says, from his onetime neighbor, actor Bradley Cooper — prowls deftly on three paws as Baitz talks about the changes that writing “Other Desert Cities” wrought in himself. (Peering out from black-framed glasses, and frequently expressing befuddlement at Trip’s canine curiousness, Baitz seems like an endearingly absent-minded zoologist.)
“I resolved several issues for myself while working on it,” he explains, adding that at the start of the process, he felt most closely aligned with the author character, Brooke. But entering the consciousnesses of his other characters led him to a more mature, conciliatory view of the validity of how each of them saw the world.
“You have to accept all their truths,” he says. “You have to learn to live with all these people’s divergent truths.”
by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Kyle Donnelly. Through May 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.