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Two Lives in the Theater : They started as master and apprentice, but now the student has eclipsed the teacher. The careers of playwright John Steppling and Jon Robin Baitz make for a classic backstage drama.

<i> Richard Stayton</i> ,<i> former theater critic for the Herald Examiner, is a frequent contributor to this magazine. </i>

Embrace failure!’ ”

“ ‘Embrace failure’?”

“You don’t remember that lesson?” asks Jon Robin Baitz.

“Vaguely.” John Steppling sighs. “I don’t remember what I meant by it, but that doesn’t matter.”

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“You said a writer must not be afraid to risk failure, and when you fail, embrace it. Learn from it.”

Steppling shrugs. “I guess I was talking a lot about failure in that part of my life--a recurring theme.”

Baitz laughs. Steppling grimly resumes studying the menu at this New York restaurant. What to say? John and Jon sit face to face. Silence. There is an undercurrent of wariness. No need to size each other up because they know one another like brothers.

But it’s been more than two years since these writers shared a table. Not so long ago they shared careers, stories, craft secrets, contacts, producers, actors, stages and the watering holes of Los Angeles. Once, John Steppling was the celebrated playwright, Jon Robin Baitz his unknown apprentice. Once Baitz and Steppling were inseparable partners.

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Now, they’re separated by a continent. Now, Jon Robin Baitz is the acclaimed playwright, Steppling a struggling also-ran. Now, six years after their agency signed them on the same day in the same Beverly Hills office, even the terminally hip waiter in this chic West Side hangout notes them as an odd couple: Steppling’s martial arts-strengthened arms folded over his heart, Baitz leaning back in his chair with a bemused smile.

To Steppling, this interview-meeting means a rare free meal. To Baitz, it presents an opportunity to discuss the state of American theater--a state requiring both writers to work far from their hometown. Their friendship has been part “Dream Coast,” part “Substance of Fire,” the titles of their most celebrated works: shadowy, supportive, wary, elliptical, competitive--always circling Hollywood and Broadway. They have both discovered, reluctantly, that if playwrights can’t make it in New York, they can’t make it anywhere in the United States.

Jon Robin Baitz--a boyish 29, “saved from being too handsome,” he says, by a Semitic nose, wearing a Princeton University baseball hat--could be the model for J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield: precocious, ironic, alienated, critical, vulnerable. John Steppling--40, dual earrings, fierce tattoos of Hokusai dragons swimming over his back to transform into Japanese koi on his arms--could be a model for a Yakuza hit man.

“Steppling’s in town?” Baitz had marveled earlier over the phone. Told that Steppling was finally on the verge of his New York theatrical debut last summer, Baitz responded: “Good for John.” Then, with barely a pause: “Is he mad at me? I always think John’s mad at me. I don’t know why. I think everybody’s mad at me.”

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Perhaps Baitz’s anxiety comes with the kind of meteoric ascension that inevitably means some friends must be left behind. Last spring, New York Times drama critic Frank Rich labeled Baitz’s “The Substance of Fire” “the most exciting play by a young writer this season.” Baitz’s writing and direction of “Three Hotels” for PBS’ “American Playhouse” recently won him a $25,000 Humanitas Award. And he’s just signed a screenplay deal with Warner Bros. to update the Sinclair Lewis novel “Dodsworth.” Hollywood luminary Sydney Pollack is planning to co-produce Baitz’s original screenplay “Finale,” with Baitz as director. Baitz’s next play, “The End of the Day,” premieres in the spring at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, and “The Substance of Fire” moves to Lincoln Center in March.

And what of his mentor? Few knew that Steppling was even in town, or about to make a long-overdue New York debut.

With more than 20 plays to his credit, nearly all set in Southern California, Steppling is probably the most influential playwright working in Hollywood--which is why he heads the Mark Taper Forum’s mentor playwright-development program. In addition to Baitz, his workshop graduates have included Shem Bitterman, Marlene Meyer, John Pappas, Robert Hummer, Kelly Stuart--all frequently produced Los Angeles playwrights and all (except Baitz) obviously influenced by Steppling. His oft-copied cinematic style--spare, elliptical, obscenity-spiced dialogue spoken by society’s outcasts, framed in brief scenes between blackouts, archly paced--even spawned a critic’s term: Stepplingesque.

But positive reviews and a loyal, if small, audience of followers do not a bank account make. Despite some national acclaim--his 1984 play about aging surfers falling into low-rent crime, “The Shaper,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, while his sinister portrait of Hollywood fringe con men, “The Dream Coast,” was published in 1987 by the influential “West Coast Plays” anthology--Steppling has enjoyed limited financial success. His film adaptation of “52 Pick-Up” and his original scripts for Barbet Schroeder paid modest monies, but Steppling remains, as always, broke. The Internal Revenue Service is after him for back taxes. His alimony payments from his second divorce consume whatever’s left. Steppling’s latest play, “Sea of Cortez,” was developed for the now-defunct Los Angeles Theatre Center. Schroeder has commissioned a script from Steppling, about American hustlers in Thailand, tentatively scheduled to begin shooting next year, but Steppling nevertheless was down to his last $60 recently. A friend came to the rescue by casting him in a low-budget movie as “the man at the urinal.”

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One indication of how far their careers have separated them: Tonight, while Baitz wears a tuxedo for a Lincoln Center fund-raiser, Steppling will be guiding rehearsals of his “Teenage Wedding” in an airless loft next door to the Rescue Mission on the Bowery. Later, Baitz will return to his 19th-Century two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, while Steppling stays with his girlfriend, Neena Beber. On weekends, Baitz escapes New York at his three-bedroom-with-pool retreat at Sag Harbor. “It’s embarrassing,” Baitz says of such comforts, especially since his ex-partner lives in a graffiti-scarred Venice cottage that he must share to meet the rent. Steppling protects his California privacy with a pair of Neapolitan mastiffs and--caged beside his mattress--a tarantula.

Steppling halfheartedly orders lunch, then turns serious. “I don’t remember the very first time we met. But I do remember the first time Robbie made an impression on me. It was at Padua . . . “

THE PADUA HILLS Playwrights Workshop and Festival probably saved Steppling’s life. Undoubtedly, it freed him from heroin addiction and provided a career alternative to dealing and petty theft. In 1978, Steppling was hiding out in New York and Los Angeles, a fugitive from probation, supporting his drug habit with a multitude of legal and illegal scams. Murray Mednick and Sam Shepard were forming a summer experimental play-development program in the dusty foothills next to Claremont College. Someone mentioned that Steppling was in town. Mednick remembered that Steppling wrote, even while strung out, and said, sure, invite the kid, too.

“Yeah, I write,” Steppling remembers growling. “Notes. Semi-coherent drugged monologues. Lovelorn, unrequited lust poetry. Never plays.” But as a teen-ager, he studied jazz composition and later harbored dreams of being a poet-philosopher. While high on heroin, he read dense tomes by Heidegger and Kant.

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Steppling figured a summer out of New York might help kick his habit. Anything would beat “probably the worst experience of my life, the two times I kicked in jail.” Steppling discovered Padua to be the perfect antidote for the overwhelming anxiety attacks that had made heroin such a panacea. He wrote a play and suddenly found himself hooked on art.

“I got on methadone right after that first year of Padua,” he told me later. “I couldn’t write or direct anything very well on heroin. Playwriting in a large part helped me to stop.” By 1982, Steppling was a Padua fixture, author of five plays and attracting what he’s lamented as “this cultish personality fetish”: young men who dressed like him and talked like him and tried to write like him.

So it’s difficult at first to understand Steppling’s attraction to 19-year-old Jon Robin Baitz. In 1982, Baitz was taking ceramics courses at Santa Monica College, contemplating a life of pottery when an actor suggested that he take a Padua workshop.

Baitz was a dubious candidate for Padua’s population of avant-gardists, misfits and dirt-poor radicals. Born in Beverly Hills, he’d spent most of his life abroad while his father worked as an executive for Carnation Milk. Baitz had lived in Brazil, South Africa, England, California, Israel and Holland, ending up back in Southern California at age 20. “I felt like a rebel without a soul at Beverly Hills High,” he once told me. “It was like being in a gulag of style over content.”

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Before meeting Steppling, Baitz enrolled in a Mednick workshop on mythic creation. Steppling imitates Mednick as guru instructor: “ ‘Now you look down into your reptile brain. You must walk like a warrior, listen to the 14th voice in the seventh house, and listen to the rhythm of your heartbeat and find the spot to sit.’

“So these students begin reading their responses,” Steppling continues. “One student chants. Then one describes this deep cavern. The next says, ‘This made me remember my mother.’ Finally, Robbie’s turn came.”

Baitz had written a sentence: “What is this guy talking about?”

“I really liked this kid because it was the most honest response in the class,” Steppling concludes. “It was just what I was thinking.”

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Under Steppling’s eye, Baitz wrote plays with no dialogue, radio plays, plays that took place in three scenes of three minutes or less. They were almost incidental to what Baitz calls “the John Steppling show”: a freewheeling discussion of literature and art and philosophy. Above all, Steppling’s phrase “embrace failure” liberated Baitz to trust himself. “He was the first teacher I’d ever had who has a clear eye and was totally without pretension,” Baitz once told me. “John ignited something in me in terms of being absolutely independent, which is the thing that I most loved about John. He is an almost impossibly compassionate man.”

Anyone who saw them together in those days must have assumed that they had nothing in common. Steppling was bloated from methadone and wore earrings (not the fashion in 1982), black T-shirts, black jeans and huaraches. Baitz resembled an insecure, eager-to-impress prep-school freshman protected by a mordant wit. Baitz remembers Steppling as “kind of menacing, slightly hulking, vague, smoking cigars--a debauched Orson Welles.” Steppling remembers Baitz as “the kid.”

Baitz was multilingual, cosmopolitan, diplomatic, raised with servants and chauffeurs, but timid in the face of raw experience. Steppling was intimidated by upper-class behavior and at home with petty criminals. Steppling was street-smart, Baitz salon-smart. Steppling was obsessed with the interior unconscious; Baitz was captivated by the visual landscape. Steppling’s literary models were the alcoholic Charles Bukowski and the addicted William Burroughs; his writing recalled Nathanael West’s grotesques. Baitz’s literary models were urbane, world-weary elder statesmen such as Graham Greene and E.M. Forster; his writing resembled that of Delmore Schwartz and Arthur Miller.

What they had in common lay under the surface, and it created a bond that went much deeper than a student-teacher role. They were linked by their mutual alienation. Both felt like exiles. Baitz was second-generation L.A.; Steppling had gone to Hollywood High and was profoundly marked by the film industry--his grandfather had been a silent-film actor under Cecil B. DeMille, while his father had been a bitter, failed actor and part-time wardrobe assistant. Steppling’s mother was a former Miss Michigan with a gambling addiction who died of alcoholism. “We were both slightly numb in different ways,” Baitz recalls. “I had never readjusted to American life after living abroad. It took a lot of energy at that time to deal with people. Reading had been a refuge since Brazil and a great refuge in Africa.”

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But the two writers, both self-educated without college degrees, were voracious readers who happened to love the same oblique, offbeat authors. Baitz is fond of quoting Saul Bellow: “A writer is simply a reader moved to emulation.” He is also enamored of E.M. Forster’s famous commandment: “Only connect.” Against all odds, Jon and John connected.

BETWEEN PADUA’S summer teaching sessions, Steppling eked out a precarious existence. His major plays--"Neck,” “Eddie Cottrel at the Piano,” “Close"--cost him money. As always, he insisted on directing his own works (an insistence that delayed his New York debut by a decade). A shoplifting sentence was reduced by a judge who read the Los Angeles Times’ review of “Exhaling Zero” and commented, “That’s a very nice review, Mr. Steppling.”

Inspired by Steppling, Baitz was conceiving his first full-length play. He had found part-time employment with an independent film-production company in which his employers “lived in juxtaposing states of outsider’s rage and outsider’s contempt for the industry.” While replacing a light bulb or pouring coffee, Baitz observed his bosses avoiding subpoenas and “seducing one another with language and gesture.” Baitz compared their speaker-phone duels with the IRS to Nixon’s Watergate tapes: Fiction could never match the fabulous ironies. They were making children’s Bible story records as tax shelters.

Baitz began repeating to Steppling the overheard dialogue, embellishing it, polishing it in perfect mimicry to his mentor’s swelling laughter. During one recitation, he invented a title on the spot to amuse Steppling: “Mizlansky/Zilinsky.”

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The play was written, remembered Baitz, “with me sort of going to John and feeding him little lines. And he has a great laugh. A penetrating laugh that comes out of an abyss--no, an abscess.”

More and more, Steppling was assuming the role of a protective older brother. By the time Steppling’s “The Shaper” opened at The Night House off L.A.'s Skid Row to almost unanimous praise, Baitz had a draft of his first full-length play. Steppling was impressed and passed it on to L.A. Theatre Works artistic director Susan Loewenberg.

Despite the squalid, dangerous environment and the need to post a security guard in front of the theater, “The Shaper” attracted industry attention. Among those risking the neighborhood was a William Morris agent named Michael Peretzian, who specialized in helping playwrights work for both stage and screen. This is highly unusual in Hollywood, where agents usually try to persuade playwrights to flee theater’s minimum wages. But Peretzian is unusual in another area as well: He has two theater degrees from UCLA and is an award-winning stage director.

Impressed by the 2l-year-old Baitz’s satire on tax-shelter scams in the movie business, Loewenberg premiered “Mizlansky/Zilinsky” on alternate nights opposite “The Shaper.” After all, Baitz and Steppling were almost inseparable in life--why not in a theater?

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“He put that together,” Baitz says of his first professional production. “It was all John. Totally. I had the theater half the week, and he had it half the week. He’d stand there bellowing if something was out of place, and I would sort of stand there quaking. The fact that I had to move his set for my play was logic lost on John. So for my play, we had our own strange, terrible, really bad set, a piece of muslin--it was just awful--and we’d drape it over (Steppling’s set).”

On top of this agony, the cast assumed that the young, novice playwright could easily be manipulated, and actors improvised new dialogue. Baitz, encouraged and prompted by Steppling, battled to support his text’s integrity. The reviews were respectful. Most critics focused on the similarities in “Mizlansky/Zilinsky” to David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” All noted Baitz’s age and obvious gift for dialect. Still, he won an L.A. Weekly award for outstanding playwriting. A few agents offered to represent Baitz if he would write a spec television script. He began working as a clerk at Book Soup in West Hollywood, making mental notes about opening his own bookstore to support his playwriting.

When Peretzian came to “The Shaper” again, Steppling encouraged the agent to see the alternative play. “This kid Robbie Baitz,” insisted Steppling, “is enormously talented.”

“It all became very circular, like over a 10-hour period,” Baitz remembers. “I think I was in my mini-John Steppling phase where I wore a black leather jacket, black jeans and a black hat, and I smoked a cigar. So I guess if I didn’t copy him as a playwright, I stole his wardrobe. I came into Peretzian’s office very sheepishly smoking a cigar.”

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Steppling, also smoking a cigar, joined Baitz in the office. Peretzian, coughing, made no promises. What impressed both writers was his insistence that they continue writing plays. “I can’t promise you’re going to make a lot of money,” Baitz remembers Peretzian telling them. “Can’t promise you anything, nor would I.” Baitz and Steppling signed simultaneously.

At first they took meetings together. “We were sort of trotted out as a team,” Baitz said then. “Eventually we began to realize there were people who wanted to talk with you because they had nothing else to do. So we’d crank out to Burbank in a car with no brakes, shuttle through the studio gate and sit in this bungalow talking for 40 minutes with people who were out of control.”

Baitz often allowed Steppling to dominate a meeting, insecurely imitating Steppling’s aggressive stance. But his natural inclination was to absorb and entertain. Baitz was eager to adapt and reconcile; Steppling’s animosity clashed with Baitz’s more amusing, conversational approach. “I don’t equate compromise with whoring,” Baitz says. As Baitz grew more confident, they chose separate paths into the industry labyrinth.

Peretzian patiently coached both, telling them to write what they must write and not try to placate Hollywood executives. Baitz responded with an article about growing up in South Africa, which was published in the L.A. Weekly. Peretzian sold it as a treatment to Norman Jewison for $7,500, the most money either writer had ever made.

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Steppling felt he was known as the hard case, his scripts “too dark” and his dialogue “too real.” But director Hector Babenco (“Pixote” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) was drawn to Steppling’s stark realism, as was Cannon Films development director Susan Hoffman. She decided that Steppling was the writer to adapt mystery author Elmore Leonard’s novel “52 Pick-Up” for director John Frankenheimer. At last Steppling earned what’s known as “grown-up money”: $50,000.

Steppling’s playwriting reputation also seemed ripe to break out. “The Shaper” was chosen for the prestigious festival of new plays in Louisville, an annual event that attracts critics and professionals from around the world. And his work-in-progress, “The Dream Coast,” was selected for the Mark Taper Forum’s New Theatre for Now Festival. Using a positive review as proof of his employment--Steppling had no credit--he purchased a new 1985 Ford Ranger with the “52 Pick-Up” money and drove across America to direct “The Shaper.”

Although New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow wrote a thoughtful, positive assessment of “The Shaper,” the overwhelming majority “hated it--just hated it.” During a post-play discussion, one audience member shouted at Louisville artistic director Jon Jory, “How dare you bring this here?”

When Steppling returned to Los Angeles, he found that the script of “52 Pick-Up” had been drastically rewritten by Frankenheimer and the movie’s star, Roy Scheider. Steppling reacted by writing “Pledging My Love,” a blunt portrait of a corrupt, egomaniacal Hollywood exploiter of young talent, largely based on Frankenheimer.

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But Baitz was doing better. His flair for inventing compelling film concepts impressed executives. He was offered development deals: a script about a Latino boxer and “Power Tools,” about an executive’s obsession with a teen-age femme fatale. Unfortunately, while Baitz talked a good game, he couldn’t manufacture stories about experiences and people he’d never known.

“Do you want to be a writer or a deal maker?” Peretzian asked. Baitz came to call Peretzian “my conscience.”

Baitz’s moral dilemma erupted after a deal dinner at Musso & Frank. He walked down Hollywood Boulevard, mentally assessing his gradual assimilation into Hollywood. “Selling out is like apartheid,” he was thinking. “If you’re not careful, you pay and you pay and you pay.” He paused at a used-book bin and noticed a title: “How To Start Your Own Film Society.” Instantly a new play was conceived, about a passive teacher in a South African prep school for white boys--exactly like the one he’d attended. The teacher’s name echoed his own: Jonathan Balton. In “The Film Society,” Balton, “the worst-case scenario” of Baitz, pathetically struggles to hide from apartheid by forming a film club.

“The Film Society” made Baitz the hottest playwright in Los Angeles. Film and stage director Ulu Grosbard co-produced the play in London and New York. Critic Charles Marowitz trumpeted in The London Guardian: “As auspicious a debut as John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’ or Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party.’ ”

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DURING THIS period, Steppling was writing out of his own Hollywood perspective, finishing “The Dream Coast.” He borrowed from Baitz by using Alan Mandell in the key role of an aging Hollywood has-been. (Mandell portrayed a schoolmaster in “The Film Society.”) Unlike Baitz, his Equity debut became a personal crisis.

In rehearsals, Steppling’s tale of industry losers turning to arson seemed “awful” and “not about anything,” he says. He became “hysterical . . . almost in tears.” But on opening night, Steppling heard Mandell’s character say, “This isn’t the life I thought I’d get.” Steppling realized this character was his father, that the play was about his father’s friends: “Marginal, semi-unemployed extras.”

Steppling discovered that, on one level or another, he’d been examining his relationship to his late father through playwriting. “He didn’t do the things he should have done,” Steppling says of his father. “He sabotaged himself, so he failed. And he had enormous, colossal regret. And that is the theme of many of my plays.”

The same was even more true of Baitz. “I have a strange identification with older characters,” he says. “It’s definitely my father, because I’ve always tried to draw these portraits of my dad.”

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But Baitz’s focus on fatherhood led to a crisis more severe than Steppling’s. He proposed writing a play for the Mark Taper Forum, “The Exiles,” that would be his “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”: an autobiographical epic set in South Africa, the Netherlands and Malibu. Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson commissioned the play.

Looking back, Davidson recognizes one fatal error: reducing the play from Baitz’s three-act locales to a single location. Periodically during the development process, Davidson suggested that the play--retitled “Dutch Landscape"--be shelved for a while. “It was very hard for Robbie to say what he had to say about his parents,” Davidson says. “We had a very close relationship, and there probably was a transference, whether it was father, son, lover, I don’t know. But I think he wanted--not to please, but to do right. A number of times I said, ‘Maybe you should put this in a drawer, maybe you’re not ready.’ ”

At the premiere, Baitz behaved uncharacteristically. He was anxious, awkward. Before the curtain rose, he tried to ingratiate himself with critics he knew. But the reviews were scathing. At age 26, the wunderkind who could do no wrong suffered through what he calls “a ‘Heaven’s Gate’ of the theater.”

Both Baitz and Davidson were devastated. Davidson now acknowledges that it took him more than two years to recover enough self-confidence to direct again. “The critics were angry about it. Angry at him and angry at me. And it was very hurtful.”

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Baitz now understands that “what finally happened at the Taper is that I just got into a dynamic with Gordon where he did a father thing, and I completely acquiesced to that, completely submitted to that. And I don’t think it was his fault. It was just a function of our two personalities.” Once again, his old friend Steppling came to the rescue. Baitz picked up the phone to hear Steppling’s advice: Embrace failure.

“Sometimes failure can be really good,” Steppling remembers telling Baitz. “It takes the heat off. Finally, who gives a shit what the critics think? Don’t turn your back on it, get something from it. You let it get away from you, it’s been a huge failure, it’s not a good play, but you should still, like, explore it, take something from it, use it.”

BAITZ HID OUT in an office above Book Soup, to escape and to heal. He sat at a desk among the shelves and stacks of books and--remembering Steppling’s advice--wrote a sentence: “Look at all these books!”

He’d written the first line of a new play, “The Substance of Fire,” about an aging editor’s struggle to maintain the literary integrity of his publishing house, “about the nature of passion itself, and the effects of that war with oneself and with one’s people,” Baitz says. “Some people arrive magically at their strength, at their aesthetic, at their courage. In fact, the hardest thing in life is to be brave.”

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Partly because of the negative experience with “Dutch Landscape,” Baitz stopped being bi-coastal and moved to New York. He needed to get away from “all those dinners and from the tempting industry. I found a kind of odd solitude in New York as a writer. I needed that after ‘Dutch Landscape.’ I needed distance.”

He also needed to come to terms with his sexuality. Although “Dutch Landscape” was about his family, there was a dishonesty at its core. As an autobiographical work, it hinted at an adolescent male’s struggles with sexual identity--struggles that got twisted into pseudo-political scenes about apartheid. “My work is about emotional honesty,” he told an interviewer just before “Dutch Landscape” premiered, “something I feel is lacking in me.”

“My feeling was, he should write a play about his homosexual panic,” Steppling says. “I always figured Robbie was gay. I remember telling people Robbie’s probably gay, he should deal with it. And people would go, ‘No, he’s just a boy.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, these boyish things read gay.’ ”

Steppling never discussed this with Baitz, even though he’d been raised around many gay men and “never saw it as a weird thing.” In fact, many of Steppling’s characters are male hustlers or bisexual. But he respected Baitz’s “strange reticence.”

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Sexual freedom may have been another motive for Baitz’s move to New York. “I wasn’t at peace with my situation at all,” he says. “I was tortured by it. And, like many people, you reach a point where, especially if you’re writing, by deceiving others you’re sort of continuing to deceive yourself. I couldn’t reconcile the morality of being a writer, this attempt to find a personal truth, with this personal agony. I knew I had to confront it.”

With his move to New York came new friends, members of his own generation who also were intelligent, literate theater artists, in particular actors Rob Morrow and Fisher Stevens. Together they founded Naked Angels, a group of actors, writers and directors. Baitz staged the first act of “The Substance of Fire” at Naked Angels, using actors he had wanted in “Dutch Landscape,” among them Ron Rifkin as a vitriolic New York publisher struggling against selling out. Most significantly, Baitz integrated the hard lessons of “Dutch Landscape.” “I’m not going to run from my life, and I’m not going to operate out of fear,” he vowed. “I will not do it. I will not say yes. I won’t smile and shuck and jive and hustle my way across a room out of fear, which I spent all of my 20s doing.”

Andre Bishop, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons (the New York space where numerous important works premiere), was introduced to Baitz. “I imagined this 55-year-old, vaguely seedy Englishman,” he says. “I was not prepared for this very smart, charming, wonderfully precocious 25-year-old guy. The fashion now is for young writers to keep their eyes cast downward and shuffle in. Robbie was extremely worldly--on a first-name basis with everyone on several continents.”

Playwrights Horizons brought “The Substance of Fire” to New York last spring. “A harbinger of what is likely to be a major playwriting career,” wrote the New York Times. Newsday compared the experience to “floating across a time line of world literature: on past the family feuds of ‘King Lear’ toward the yearning of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ to the biting self-awareness of Edward Albee.” At age 29, Baitz was suddenly in the company of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Albee.

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“OK, let’s talk about Robbie’s success,” Steppling angrily hisses at the end of the meal. “What about it? What is the question here? Who knows what that means? What is my impression of his success? My impression is he has had some success. I always figured he would do very well, and he has. The critics will probably hate him a couple of years from now, and six or seven years from now they’ll really like him again. The critics are really, like, to be ignored.”

STEPPLING’S RARE expression of bitterness and resentment is understandable. While Baitz cultivated New York and shrewdly recovered from a failure, Steppling was fighting an increasingly steep uphill battle. San Francisco’s Magic Theatre gave Steppling only his second production outside Los Angeles, where “Pledging My Love” met with withering reviews. (“A dyslexic ‘Day of the Locust,’ ” wrote one Bay Area critic.) In 1987, he co-founded an ambitious resident company of actors and playwrights in L.A. named Heliogabalus (after an insane Roman emperor). After three years on a budget of less than $4,000 a season, Steppling disbanded the company.

His playwriting career seemed stymied. The eagerly anticipated “The Thrill” didn’t realize its potential. Expectations that it would be a “West Side Story” for the 1980s were undermined by a defiantly somnolent pace.

Why success for Baitz but not Steppling? Observed Jack Viertel, currently creative director for Broadway’s Jujamcyn Theaters, who worked with both writers while a Taper dramaturg: “Steppling doesn’t write about officially disenfranchised people. He writes about disenfranchised people who aren’t officially sanctioned.”

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Peretzian suggested Steppling may have “hit the ceiling in L.A.” What about New York? Hollywood always fell under Broadway’s spell. Consider, said Peretzian, that Craig Lucas had developed and premiered “Prelude to a Kiss” at South Coast Repertory Theater in Orange County. Despite positive reviews, film-industry executives expressed not a ripple of interest. But when “Kiss” moved and became an Off-Broadway hit, Peretzian was able to negotiate the playwright a deal in excess of $1 million for adapting it to film and gained Lucas extraordinary creative control.

Peter Hagen, Steppling’s theatrical agent at William Morris in New York, said: “We’d like to see John have more of a presence here in New York now. John is known as a Los Angeles playwright. He has an almost fanatical following among certain people out there. Getting the little bit of heat that could come from a production here will help.”

Steppling wasn’t so sure. He’d heard New Yorkers dismiss his plays as “too Californian.” He’d heard Baitz’s staunch supporter, Andre Bishop, label his plays “too spare and abstract” for Playwrights Horizon subscribers.

But Steppling’s second marriage went under, and his ex-wife, an actress, took his truck. Suddenly, the IRS audited his only year of substantial income--the year he wrote “52 Pick-Up"--and demanded back taxes. He was reduced to taking buses around Los Angeles. His bulldog, Blacky, was stolen. He suffered through a series of destructive love affairs, what he calls “bad women karma.”

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And then he had a nightmare: “I was chasing some rats down the street at night. I suddenly noticed a snake alongside me--and the snake was chasing the rats, too . . . and then I fell, and I was rolling, and I could feel the snake was caught up with me, and we were rolling together and then we came to a stop . . . and I felt I was becoming part snake . . . and I saw my reflection in this glass door, and I saw the skin on my face had started to form scales. I had caught the rat and swallowed it, and the rat’s tail was hanging out of my nostril, moving back and forth.”

Steppling woke up screaming. It was definitely time for a change.

Film director Barbet Schroeder and producing partner Susan Hoffman, as well as her husband, Peter Hoffman of Carolco Pictures, provided $5,000 for Steppling’s 1991 New York debut. Steppling enlisted actors he’d worked with for the past decade, tracking down Mick Collins in the Betty Ford Clinic and flying him to New York. He chose a small space in the TriBeca district, the HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art. He flew east and, between rehearsals, met New York’s hottest playwright.

“Are you proud of your pupil?” I ask Steppling as I pay the restaurant bill. “Can you call him your pupil?”

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While Baitz stiffens, Steppling answers judiciously, “I don’t think I can take very much credit for anything. I’m pleased. Did Robbie come out of my class? I don’t know. I mean, who knows?”

Baitz finally responds: “I would feel offended were he to take credit. However, he has a right to. But he’s not responsible for that, so that’s why I would feel offended. I think he would be offending himself in some way, too. John is an incredibly morally rigorous person, actually, and were he to sit around taking credit for anyone else’s anything, it would be in basic opposition to his own strictures.”

Baitz faces Steppling: “Do you think it’s true?”

“Well, I think it’s true that . . . " A Stepplingesque pause. Then: “I don’t want to take credit for being morally rigorous, either.”

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“No, I think you are.” Baitz hesitates a brief moment, then softly concludes, “I think you are one of the fallen angels.”

Baitz excuses himself. He must retun to his Chelsea flat and put on his tuxedo for the Lincoln Center fund-raiser.

THE NEXT DAY at Sardi’s in the heart of the Broadway theater district, Baitz is again formally dressed. As host he has chosen this location for his brother’s wedding reception. Among the famous illustrations of Broadway’s past stars, near the bar where Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller and Edward Albee and Lillian Hellman anxiously waited for their first-night reviews, Baitz makes a speech that might have impressed those ghosts.

In his wedding toast, Baitz says commitment to another requires “a huge leap of faith in order to simply fall in love today, sanely. Not crazily. And to sustain that. I’m so proud of my brother and his bride for trying to bridge the numbness gap, the isolation gap.”

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Afterward, he and his live-in lover of several months, stage director Joe Mantello, are mobbed by relatives.

While Baitz partied at Sardi’s, Steppling was trying to facilitate his long-overdue coming to New York. Among other unfortunate decisions, he fired the theater’s publicist and took over his own promotion. Possibly as a result, the Post, Newsday and the New York Times did not send critics. Notorious New York magazine critic John Simon attended but didn’t publish a review until after closing night. (“An all-around no-talent,” sniffed Simon, “more worth attending to as a character than as a playwright.”)

While Steppling pondered his review, word came from Los Angeles that there had been a mix-up with the IRS over payment on his back taxes. Now a lien had been placed on his bank account.

“This has been a surreal year,” Steppling told me. “I find New York a tiresome, noisy, dirty place, but it still is a better town for theater. There’s a really interested and informed audience here. People just don’t know shit about theater in Los Angeles. After like 12 or 13 years of doing plays there, I look out at my audience and I see the same people. It’s nice to see an audience full of strangers who have no idea what to expect. I’d love to do more shows in New York.”

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Baitz, 3,000 miles away at the 17th annual Humanitas Awards in Century City, missed Steppling’s opening night. But he heard about Steppling’s dismissal by the New York critics. He also learned from mutual friends of Steppling’s desperate finances. Baitz promptly sent a check for $1,200.

It was not necessary to attach a note reminding Steppling to embrace failure.


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