Acclaimed playwright Jon Robin Baitz talks about his lauded new play, ‘Other Desert Cities,’ his crash-and-burn experience with ‘Brothers and Sisters’ on TV, David Mamet’s turn to the right, Rob Lowe’s graciousness, and other matters theatrical and personal.
Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities opens Nov. 3 on Broadway at the Booth Theatre after its initial, critically acclaimed run at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre last season. It’s the story of a prodigal daughter who returns to her Palm Springs family to prepare them for the memoir she has written, which is more than an account of their troubled family history. It—and she—demands an accounting for that history as well, since it involves a brother lost long ago to the familial maze the rest of them have made their way through: the former B-movie-star father, who was once the chairman of the Republican Party; his wisecracking wife, who refuses to crack; another son, who produces reality television; and the wife’s alcoholic, left-wing sister, who has turned into her ward and roams through their glazed Palm Springs rooms and glazed-over family history like an auntie maimed.
The play’s cast is exemplary: Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Judith Light, Rachel Griffiths, and Thomas Sadoski. Its themes—how politically complicit are we by the choices we make in our personal lives, is love the solution to our existential loneliness or its cause, how much does free will finally cost the lot of us—are the themes that Baitz has touched on in other plays, starting in 1987 with The Film Society, based on his time growing up in South Africa when his father, an executive with a multinational corporation, uprooted his California family and set them down in the maze of that country’s apartheid system.
I’ve known Robbie, as he’s known to his friends, for 15 years, and I am happy that he is finally getting the Broadway premiere he’s always deserved. Other Desert Cities is what once was—and is now again with this production, directed by Joe Mantello—what the term “Broadway play” could and can connote: a smart and heartfelt topical drama laced with punchlines and grace notes, all delivered by a cast of consummate pros at the top of their game. Robbie, taking a break from the theater district and all the buildup to the play’s opening, met me last week for breakfast at Cafe Dante on McDougal Street in the West Village.
You’re going to turn 50 in a few days, the age of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth, who finally became, at that age, an autonomous man fully aware of his cultural place while feeling detached from it.
That’s true. Dodsworth, like me, is always ambivalent and wistful even though he’s free. It’s interesting you mention Dodsworth. I’ve always considered Dodsworth and Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night almost the same person. For whatever reason, I think about that a lot—two American archetypes.
Dodsworth’s car company was named Revelation. Are you having any of the requisite revelations as you turn the big 5-0?
Just the cliché ones. You are who you are. Don’t lie about anything. You don’t have to stay out all night. The country is nicer than the city. Rather like an accumulation of Chinese fortune cookies. I do intend to do the thing that British playwrights do, and that is try and do a play every year or two. I’m pretty much cured of the Hollywood thing, which is good because Hollywood, as I remember its ambitions, no longer exists. I can stay put here in New York and not feel as if I’m missing anything.
You did have not only a public break with Hollywood but a public breakdown in many ways when you and ABC had a falling out over the direction of Brothers and Sisters, the show you created for them. It all got rather nasty in the press. Was writing this play after all that professional nastiness in your life a way of healing yourself?
Isn’t this play finally what you wanted Brothers and Sisters to be?
That’s quite literally true. Look, when I left Brothers and Sisters, I felt as if I were flayed alive. And I was quite possibly certifiable. I behaved in a way that someone who has gone crazy behaves, as I was being pushed out of it by ABC and trying to be pushed out of it at the same time. But it did push me into writing this play, as I had to confront the danger of being a writer and the sense of omnipotence that is a false sense. But all the writing I had wanted to do on that show had been completely thwarted, and frankly the network had only contempt for what I wanted to do. I don’t know what the culture of Disney and ABC is now, but at the time it was very unpleasant and anti-artist. They had a profound suspicion for the creative process. They found the creative process to be, in fact, a form of cancer. There was just no place there for what I was trying to do—an entertaining meditation on class and position in America, and what I thought was the most interesting part of it all, which was an evolving matriarchy after the men had ruined everything they touched for generation after generation. I was also curious about how to write about aging and the reality of it. But at a certain point you can’t fight the imposed resolutions of happy endings and cuteness. I am not completely blameless in it all. The first straw was always the last straw for me. The nice thing about it all, finally, was figuring out how to write again. When I left Los Angeles, I went out to my little Sag Harbor house and I sat in silence for almost a year. I was extremely unhappy at first. And angry.
Were you having a nervous breakdown or a moment of clarity?
No, there was no clarity whatsoever. I was hostile. I was paranoid. I knew the best thing I could do was keep out of most people’s way. But I was not well. I was really not well. I had fled L.A. in a rage. I think the thing I learned was to sit quietly to take stock. There is no real miracle I discovered. There is just sort of growing up. And I began to teach, which helped because it was a way of being of service, which I had never done before. When your ego has been stripped away and you sort of rebuild yourself, I think you are able to come back into the world and be more useful. It’s not entirely about how you look in the mirror.
Other Desert Cities is ultimately a play about forgiveness. In the writing of it, were you forgiving yourself?
Absolutely. Eventually. I think that’s right. It’s something you have to learn to do or you’ll end up phenomenally bitter like some John Osborne creature. I think the kind of anger required to live that way will also drive you mad. But in order to forgive yourself, you have to first come to terms with all the things you don’t know and all the assumptions you’ve made, which is an active part of this play. To me, also, on a profound level, the play is about the emergence of humility in human nature and how vital that is. Again and again one is reminded of how little one knows. I live in real doubt about most things. I think I know something about what people feel, and yet that may just be a vivid projection. So I’ve become tentative as I get older about my claims. For example, the older I get the less simplistic my politics are.
That is one of the interesting facets of this play to me. You are rather left-leaning in your politics, and yet you have written this über-sophisticated right-wing couple of the ilk who still populate the Republican Party in its so-called establishment wing, and you make them finally heroic and sympathetic on a personal level. I do find that one of the cultural conundrums that confronts me a lot. So many right-wingers whose politics I find so deplorable are so disarmingly nice on a personal level because all their vileness can be found in their politics, and so many left-wingers whose politics I tend to agree with can be such assholes in person because they think the “goodness” in their politics gives them a kind of pass.
It’s true. In many ways the underlying notions—as simplistic as they are—of conservative thinking are that they insist on living with rigor. That’s admirable. The awful part of such thinking is the failure of the imagination. There are just two more and more diametrically opposed views of the world now, and there is a yearning in this play for those to come together. And yet I have watched the de-evolution of conservative politics into something profoundly anti-intellectual and profoundly malignant and ahistorical.
I find it at its base—no pun intended—nihilistic.
It is nihilism. And there was a longing on my part in this play—maybe even romantic of me—to rediscover a level of humanism in conservatism, which seems to have been rejected entirely out of hand. Yet there is a critique in this play that they did this to themselves. You let this happen to your own party, your agenda, your own philosophy. On many levels, this play is finally an examination of how it is to live with being complicit.
What do you make of David Mamet’s turn to the right? He seems to put more store these days in Glenn Beck than Beckett.
What I think that has happened to Mr. Mamet is that he is an artist and a contrarian, and I think that somehow, living under the shade of the Southern California palm tree engendered a kind of contempt in him for himself. And a decompensation occurred, which resulted in his putting on the suit of The Conservative. He’s always despised hypocrisy, and I think he’s in a kind of war with the hypocrisy within his community and within himself. Look, it’s not unlike when Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian. It’s the trajectory of someone searching for truth. The fact that his ideas at the moment are riddled with contempt and that he’s in bed with people who would quite happily see him dead is just another iteration of believing that you have answers when there aren’t any, really. I’m not really interested in David as an ideologue. I’m interested in his poetry as a playwright and his sense of humor. That’s the real Mamet to me. The real Mamet is an actor who became a writer and had a real sense of the criminal and the sleight of hand in American life. I think that sometimes writers feel sort of small, and he’s always suffered from a preponderance of testosterone. And I think being a liberal or a progressive can make a particular kind of Chicago guy, which David is, feel kind of small. So I think that he’s just in the middle of a breakdown.
Spoken by someone who has survived his own. But will his poetic voice that you profess to love so much change now that his political voice has?
You must understand that his reaction to being surrounded by easy privilege and, frankly, decadence is simply a form of disgust. But it’s overpopulated him, this disgust, and spilled out like an infection into a worldview. Not to get all Freud on his ass, but I think his outlook would be different if his circumstances, i.e., where he lives, were different. There is something about Hollywood liberalism that—even though it is the easiest target in the world—is so stomach-turning in its smugness. It’s no different than his reaction was once to capitalism run amok. I think disgust is disgust.
Hollywood is no longer the home of limousine liberals but of Gulfstream-jet progressives.
Exactly. So he is responding to that rather haplessly at the moment. It’s interesting that another great Chicagoan, Saul Bellow, similarly lost patience and supposedly drifted to the right in his latter years. It’s a very pragmatic city, the antithesis of showbiz L.A. and literary New York. Yet, paradoxically, conservatism is imbued with a fetishistic nostalgia. All ideology is, actually. That’s why all ideology fails. In this case, however, Mamet has perversely aligned himself with what has devolved into a cult whose sole platform seems to be how do you invent new ways to sack Rome in broad daylight, all the while claiming to be at war with profligacy. You end up in bed with a rogues' gallery of supply-siders, armchair hawks, and false prophets who declare that corporations are people. Most saddening about Mamet is that he may have lost sight of the way in which artists abdicate their independence when they choose to align themselves with any system that proposes its rightness. I would hope that David would write plays rather than tracts. Because the devil always has the best dialogue, and he is possessed by the devil right now.
Let’s bring this back to your own play. It must give you a kind of devilish delight to see Rachel Griffiths, who was so good in the now-canceled Brothers and Sisters, giving such a magnificent performance in Other Desert Cities. Talk about coming full circle. What is that experience like for you?
Revenge. It’s a way of saying, “You see what we could have done? You see what she can do?” It’s revenge. And every night I experience it as revenge. It’s the writerly equivalent of fuck-you money.
You have also remained friendly with Rob Lowe, who was in the Brothers and Sisters cast. In fact, he insisted you stay with him and his family at their home in Montecito when you taught at UC Santa Barbara. What is Rob like as a host?
Rob’s genuine level of charm, kindness, bonhomie, and sweetness are something from another time. And the measure of all this is that he and his wife have two of the most beautifully polite, ambitious, clever, funny, charming children in the world. Rob has been one of those people who has been underestimated because of his looks, but as he gets older, he’s just going to get better and better. I would write him a part in a second.
Let’s talk about the parts you write for women. The three in this new play are all so different from each other and so fully rounded and, well, juicy.
I actually think a lot of this has to do with psychoanalysis, because when I started writing I thought I was never going to be able to write women. I just didn’t understand them. I think I was actually quite scared of women for a long, long time, and then, if I do say so myself, I really cleverly found a brilliant woman psychiatrist. So after a decade of going to her a few times a week I think that door opened in me, and now I much prefer them to men, frankly. I like that the emotional lives of women are tinged with a kind of mordant humor for the most part. They get the joke in a way that very few men do. Women really get the cosmic joke for the most part. They are the Jews of sex.
And yet you are a homosexual. In fact, you and Joe Mantello, the director of Other Desert Cities, were once a couple. What was it like to be in the writer-director relationship now that you are no longer in a romantic one?
It was Joe who said the smartest thing that anyone has ever said to me when I was sort of paralyzed and couldn’t write after my return from L.A. He said, “Nobody is waiting for the next Jon Robin Baitz play.” I owe my life to him in really insisting that I man up. But in regard to the writer-director aspect of our relationship, Joe and I have been through so much, and I am still as stupid as ever and he is still as fearless as ever about stepping on toes. I think this play is actually seminal for me, because I kept thinking I was done and Joe kept looking at me reminding me how profoundly lazy I am. I am the model for the three-toed sloth. My self-loathing has to reach a particular level, and then I am actually stirred to function again. To move. To write. To act. I think that writing a play is being able to receive your characters’ anticipation and mis-anticipation of events to come. How wrong they are in their expectations. I mean, Hamlet to me seems to be a series of mis-anticipations on Hamlet’s part.
Do you anticipate or mis-anticipate ever getting married? You’ve said in the past that marriage flattens out the romance and tragedy and complexity of being gay.
I’m as perplexed by my confirmed bachelorhood as anybody else. I don’t get it at all.
I would think you would be chased—and that’s not spelled c-h-a-s-t-e.
I might be. But then my rearview mirror isn’t working.
Well, now I know what to buy you for your 50th birthday. Some Windex for that rearview mirror.