Jon Robin Baitz came up with the title of his new play "Other Desert Cities" while driving east on Interstate 10. Originally it was to be called "Love and Mercy," but then Baitz visited Palm Springs.
"There's the turn-off for Palm Springs and then you see a sign: And Other Desert Cities, he said. "And it goes out into this huge existential desert of America, surrounded by Joshua trees and windmills, and you just don't know what's out there … and it's terrifying. And wonderful."
Baitz conjured this image on the patio of a friend's Brentwood house, where he had stopped on his way to the Ojai Playwrights Conference Summer New Works Festival, where "Other Desert Cities" will be presented there Tuesday, the first in a five-day series of staged readings by new and established writers.
The author of such pungent, witty and socially aware works as "The Film Society," "The Substance of Fire," and "Mizlansky/Zilinsky or Schmucks," Baitz is on the "established" side of the equation; his play, already slated for production at Lincoln Center in January, is not exactly the sort of hatchling, with damp wings and wobbly legs, that audiences might reasonably expect at a small-town theater festival. But of course we're talking about Ojai, well known for developing the work of emerging and seasoned writers since the annual conference began in 1998. Plays read at the Summer Works Festival have gone on to win critical acclaim at prominent New York stages and the regional theaters: Christopher Durang's "Betty's Summer Vacation," Lisa Loomer's "Living Out" and Julia Cho's "Durango" are notable examples.
It will be the first time Baitz has heard "Other Desert Cities" in front of an audience — and the first time an audience has heard a new play by Baitz since "The Paris Letter" opened at New York's Roundabout Theatre in 2005.
In the meantime, he created the ABC drama "Brothers & Sisters," then left the show as a result of "creative differences." The experience, he admits, left him "in extremis, as they say in shrink-land. My heart was broken, quite literally."
But Baitz has a luxury that a playwright must often deny his characters: another act. He left Los Angeles and returned to New York in 2008 and has spent his time since then "trying to learn how to write plays again."
"I was in really bad shape when I left here.... I felt like the 'English Patient' inside on some level.... I had to get better," he said. "That's a self-dramatizing statement if there ever was one! You'll have to say that I laughed self-deprecatingly."
Baitz also has found teaching to be reinvigorating, although he has mixed feelings about graduate programs in playwriting. "I didn't go to college," he explained. "My MFA program was going to Seattle Rep, the Taper Lab, any number of smaller theaters … the Padua Playwrights Festival. But the American theater has changed so dramatically. That system where you could go to the regional theaters and develop work easily has sort of collapsed, mostly due to the finances, so the MFA programs have become the houses of development."
He will teach undergraduates for the first time this winter at UC Santa Barbara, and he seems to be a born teacher. He talked passionately on a dazzling range of topics, in complete paragraphs threaded with references — to Montaigne, David Hockney, Weegee, Calvinism — suggesting a lifetime of self-motivated, searching, even strenuous reading.
"You know, I've written about one thing again and again and again, and it's the accidental process by which we discover what our real politics are, which are quite distinct from the ones we announce, and 'Other Desert Cities,' more than any other play I've ever written, synthesizes that notion very clearly."
When Baitz is in this mode it's easy to forget how playful and funny he is as a playwright. But then he makes one of his self-mocking asides: "Sometimes I'll get letters from people writing dissertations and I think 'On me? On a play I wrote? No, you can't be wasting your time, it's a catastrophe for you!'"
And suddenly this legend of American theater is just "Robbie," as his friends call him. "I still feel like a child, but I'm almost 50," he said. In cornflower blue Vans sneakers, jeans, a faded blue V-neck T-shirt, and Elvis Costello glasses, he could be a hip thirtysomething.
He has come out to the Ojai Playwrights Conference not only because of his affection for the place — he workshopped two earlier plays there, "The Paris Letter" and "Chinese Friends" — but also because of his admiration for artistic director and producer Robert Egan.
"We have a very long relationship that goes back 25 years, to my first and second plays. I trust his ear and taste and eye and his sense of service to the theater."
Although Baitz has popped up in the New York Times crossword puzzle, as the answer to the clue "'Substance of Fire' author," he tends to be charmingly modest about his place in the pantheon of celebrity. "I was almost in a terrible plane crash a few years ago with a bunch of famous people. And I had this running joke that in the Post they were all listed and at the bottom it said, 'And playwright dies, too.'"
Like many of Baitz's earlier productions, "Other Desert Cities" will be directed at Lincoln Center by the Tony Award-winning Joe Mantello, Baitz's former romantic partner, with whom he remains close. Also like earlier Baitz plays, it's a family drama that reflects his concerns about the American political landscape, specifically, "the great big chasm between the left and the right, and the evolution, or even de-evolution, of the conservative movement in America."
When he left Hollywood, Baitz gave up his house in Venice right next door to Dennis Hopper's and now lives part time in Brooklyn and part time in the Long Island town of Water Mill, where his neighbors include Mantello, the actor Ron Rifkin, who has starred in much of his work, and Ken Olin, his co-executive producer on "Brothers & Sisters."
"I love Los Angeles," said Baitz, who was born and lived here until he was 7, when his father's business took the family to South Africa and Brazil; he returned to attend Beverly Hills High School. "I love the magic and history of it and the amazing way in which nature can integrate with and infringe on the city. What I don't think is healthy for me is the sort of low-key murmuring of showbiz all the time. I don't know if it's exactly the right place to be if you're trying to be a playwright again."
He said this while sipping espresso and looking out over a panoramic view of the city from a friend's patio. He was just visiting but right at home.