American Ironist

    22 September 2012

    They don’t get more Anglophile than the American playwright and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz. His favourite writers are Harold Pinter, David Hare and Caryl Churchill, and the ironic and acerbic sensibilities that run through his scripts could easily be mistaken for the work of a writer this side of the Atlantic.
    As well as this, more than a few of his characters are English. Yet despite being renowned as one of the leading American dramatists of his generation, who has written films featuring Al Pacino and Sarah Jessica Parker, Baitz has been largely ignored in Britain, apart from two early autobiographical plays (The Film Society and Three Hotels) which were staged off-West End two decades ago.

    Sometime in the next year that will change, when Other Desert Cities, the most acclaimed play of the 2011-12 Broadway season, is staged in London.

    Baitz might be a fixture on the New York theatre scene but Other Desert Cities was his first work to play on Broadway, where it starred theatre stalwarts Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing and was directed by his former boyfriend Joe Mantello. The play chronicles a fraught Christmas in Palm Springs when a left-wing writer’s memoir about her late terrorist brother upsets her Republican grandee parents.

    The American family crack-up is well-trodden dramatic terrain but Baitz’s humane and humorous approach to his characters elevates Other Desert Cities.

    It’s clichéd to frame a dramatist’s life as a play but it’s irresistible in the case of Baitz. Act One: Born in Los Angeles, he grows up in Brazil and South Africa owing to his father working for the Carnation milk company. Act Two: He moves as a teenager to Beverly Hills and works as a personal assistant for a tyrannical film producer, getting a debut play, Mizlansky/Zilinsky, out of the experience. Act Three: Baitz’s plays, many of them featuring background material from his peripatetic childhood, make him a playwright to be reckoned with. Act Four: He goes to Hollywood and creates the ABC TV drama Brothers and Sisters, starring Rob Lowe, only to be fired in spectacular fashion in 2008. Act Five: Creative crisis, followed by Other Desert Cities becoming a Broadway sensation.

    When we meet at the downtown restaurant Odeon, Baitz, 50, doesn’t disguise his happiness at making his Broadway breakthrough: ‘It’s an utterly new experience for me. Every night there are 700 people there and everything becomes larger and more magnified.’

    Other Desert Cities emerged from the dark cloud that descended over Baitz — known to his friends as Robbie — after he was fired (he chronicled the experience, which coincided with the writers’ strike, in a series of biliously eloquent blogs.) ‘After I left television, I found myself writing for the Huffington Post, which is a horrible Hollywood cocktail party of a journal, about the strike,’ he says. ‘I wrote some really nasty shit. Most of it was to some degree true but I was left reeling by my own vitriol and I thought of the Joan Didion quote that writers are always betraying somebody, and I wondered who I might hurt, having managed to get myself fired from my own television show.’

    That coincided with his increasing frustration at the partisan political process: ‘Americans have come to hate other Americans now in such a profound way that it seems to me to be verging on civil war.’ Baitz calls the Tea Party a ‘black hole of negation’ but he also objects to the left caricaturing the right. ‘The notion that a Republican like Paul Ryan is a slobbering capitalist monster is patently untrue. I’m incredibly bored by the writhings and contortions on both the left and right in which everybody vilifies everybody else endlessly and there’s no more dialogue.’

    In that spirit, Baitz goes out of his way not to demonise Lyman Wyeth, the patriarchal former ambassador and Hollywood actor in Other Desert Cities, for being on the right of the political spectrum; even his Reaganite Republicanism is hardly in vogue today.

    ‘I described the Wyeth family in rehearsals as very much a dying breed,’ Baitz says. ‘They are articulate and humane and trying to make sense of a shifting landscape under their feet.’

    After the success of Other Desert Cities, Baitz’s star has never shone brighter, not that he would admit to it. Team Robbie, I say, is pretty strong. ‘If only there were more people on Team Robbie,’ he responds, ‘my life would be so much easier.’ Later this year, Baitz will be writing the script for the film adaptation of Other Desert Cities, which he reveals will be directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours).

    ‘Screenwriting is a kind of science that is about what is in the frame. Great British writers have made great screenwriters. I think it’s the English schoolboy education system of rigour and reason.’

    Back to Baitz lauding English writers. When Other Desert Cities is staged over here, I suspect his take on fragile family life will do wonders for the British wing of Team Robbie.