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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.

December 01, 1991|RICHARD STAYTON | Richard Stayton , former theater critic for the Herald Examiner, is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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."

"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."

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."

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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