Jon Robin Baitz: Playwright’s split personality does not disguise singular vision
The harshest critic of Jon Robin Baitz — author of the Pulitzer-nominated Broadway hit Other Desert Cities, which is about to make its UK debut at the Old Vic — is a bespectacled mild-mannered American I encounter sipping an Americano in a posh London hotel. “I dislike him intensely,” he says. But to clarify, Baitz and his critic are the same person. Or as Baitz describes them, two halves of a playwright’s psyche. “The person you’re speaking to is Robbie,” Baitz reassures me. “And Robbie is far more easy-going. But they really are at war. Mostly I listen to that battle,” he says of the internal conflict out of which the plays arise. “I would like it if Robbie wrote the plays but Jon Robin seems to write them.”
If I were Baitz, I’d keep his less likeable self in the writer’s chair.
He is perhaps best known in the States as the creator of the American TV series Brothers and Sisters, which starred Rob Lowe. Baitz was notoriously fired from the series for, it is said, wanting to write the show he felt it should be. That is, one with complexity, wit and humanity rather than the blander feel-good version required by his employers at the ABC network.
Some of his earlier plays were successful in the relatively modest way that good plays sometimes are. For instance, Substance of Fire — about a Jewish publisher and Holocaust survivor whose offspring attempt to take control of the company because their father is driving it into the ground by publishing Shoah books — is being revived in New York. But it was Other Desert Cities, the play Baitz wrote as an antidote to that unhappy TV experience, that gave him his Broadway debut in 2011.
It’s set in Palm Springs in 2004 where the Wyeth family are having a family reunion at Christmas. The ageing parents Lyman (Peter Egan) and Polly (Sinéad Cusack) are Republican stalwarts, pillars of what is known in America as the GOP (Grand Old Party). They are typically Wasp on the surface yet the Texas-born Polly is Jewish beneath it. Their grown-up daughter Brooke, played by American actress Martha Plimpton, is a one-book novelist who has managed to overcome her writer’s block by penning a family memoir about her dead brother Henry. Before Henry killed himself, he was lost to a terrorist cult which bombed an American army recruitment centre. Also present is Brooke’s recovering left-wing alcoholic aunt Silda (Clare Higgins), who likes to needle Polly by reminding her of her Jewishness.
You could describe Other Desert Cities, which takes its name from a Palm Springs road sign, as a family drama not radically different from Brothers and Sisters. Except that the 52-year-old Baitz has ensured that the Wyeths also serve as a metaphor for today’s politically riven America.
In terms of plot, however, much of the tension in the play, which is here directed by Lindsay Posner, is derived from whether Brooke is going to damage her parents’ standing in the party by publishing her version of the scandal that nearly killed her parents’ reputation, as well as their son. In that sense it’s a play that asks if our first duty is to do the right thing by others rather than ourselves. And for Baitz that’s an issue that goes to the heart of what he calls his Jewish identity.
“Culturally I was as much a Jew as an American, if not more so. I was brought up to be comfortable with the ironies of Jewish culture in the States,” he says. “The mordant humour, fatalism, the outrage about people such as Richard Nixon. Whether it was simple as bagels every Sunday or as complicated as the endless need to examine our choices, I learned pretty early on that being Jewish was to always have a real burden.” This burden is rooted in knowing you have escaped whatever anti-Jewish calamity threatened your antecedents. “Growing up you always felt that you were one of the luckiest of the lucky. To be an American Jew carried with it the responsibility to make yourself and the world a lot better.” It’s an outlook that drives much of the conflict in his argumentative play. For Baitz,politics is a battle between those who are untroubled by social conscience and those who are. One group sleeps easy, the other doesn’t.
“If you feel that you’re not morally obligated to provide anything other than yourself with the best life you can, then that makes life much easier. But if you’re gummed up by this sense of responsibility, you’re f*****,” he says.
Baitz was raised by liberal Jews who were active in California’s Jewish community. His father Edward was a businessman whose work took the family to Brazil and South Africa where Baitz spent large chunks of his childhood and teens, allowing him to retain a detached perspective on his country and its politics. Which is not to say he doesn’t get angry about it.
As a gay, left-leaning liberal (his former boyfriend was the actor/director Joe Mantello who directed the New York productions of Other Desert Cities), he has particular contempt for the Tea Party. “They pretend to believe in economic rigour and discipline but that’s just a cover for racism, homophobia and hate speech,” he claims.
Much more interesting to the playwright are the rational Republicans who allowed the Tea Party so much influence. Republicans like Lyman and Polly. “I’m always interested in the people who let stuff happen, [for instance] the failure of the United States to denounce Stalin; the looking the other way; the marriages of convenience and the ways in which you will pay.
“One day I’d like to write about what was and could have been the continued allegiance between black and Jewish America,” Baitz adds.
“It’s endlessly fascinating. Nobody has really written the history of that alignment.”
What killed it? “I think everybody’s needs changed. And when you suddenly looked, we were over here and they were over there.” Jews were bewildered by the change, Baitz says. But the cause of the rift ultimately wasn’t that complicated. “Quite simply it was harder to be black in America than it was to be Jewish.”
However, the next work is going to be a “post 9/11 play”. The aftermath of the attacks gave rise to what he describes as the “ex-liberal” — and what he jokingly refers to as “the Jew with the gun”. This is not a Jewish terrorist but shorthand for those who have used 9/11 to justify a new wave of selfish “me culture”. It sounds like a subject that could ruffle feathers and one that’s perfect for the prickly Jon Robin.