If President-elect Bill Clinton can call himself "the comeback kid," so might Jon Robin Baitz.
After all, Baitz is back in the city of his birth, working on "The Substance of Fire," his acclaimed New York play about a tempestuous editor's battles to retain control of a publishing house. This Thursday he'll witness its opening at the Mark Taper Forum on the same stage that four years ago premiered "Dutch Landscape," the notorious career-threatening debacle that propelled Baitz on a self-imposed exile to Manhattan.
And, at 31, Baitz could still be called a kid.
But forget "kid." To hear Baitz talk is to realize that only "comeback" rings true. Meeting Baitz today might shock many of his former Los Angeles colleagues and mentors who remember him as "boyish." Gone is the lanky adolescent kid with the sometimes shy and sometimes sly gaze.
The man positioning his six-foot-plus frame in front of a tape recorder is obviously a mature, self-confident, sophisticated professional. Even a slightly world-weary, ambiguous sadness burdens his voice, a condition he dismisses as "just a natural melancholy endemic to being alive."
Clearly nothing ages a writer like success. But Baitz must carry an additional weight: being ordained the great hope of the American theater.
Consider the following:
* New York Daily News critic Howard Kissel declared after reviewing "The Substance of Fire": "Nothing makes me more hopeful for the American theater than the writing of Jon Robin Baitz."
* New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote about Baitz's 1992 Off Broadway hit "The End of the Day": "At the age of 30 this playwright is a mature artist with a complete vision . . . (who) offers so much hope for the American theater."
Failure is dangerous to a writer. But so is this level of praise. Fortunately for Baitz, success breeds discontent.
"It's all very intangible," the playwright says of his good fortune. "The list of things I would like to do and cannot do as a writer are legion and they grow with the rapidity of trees falling in the Amazon rain forest. It's not good enough. The work should be better. But it gets harder as you get older. And one becomes harder to please."
Baitz's defense against phenomenal acclaim is to keep a low profile. For example, he's been in L.A. since September, staying with his lover, actor Joe Mantello, while Mantello performed in "Angels in America" at the Taper.
"During the 'Angels' run, I kept myself sequestered away," Baitz says. "I was very chary, very wary of this town, so I stayed in the hotel and worked on my next play as much as I could. One problem with this town is innate: There is nothing new to be said about Hollywood. And that state itself is enervating for a writer because you're actively in a cliche."
Still, it must be pleasing to return home in triumph.
"I don't feel that it's home anymore," Baitz responds. Although born in Beverly Hills, where he lived until age 8, Baitz is now a confirmed New Yorker. "A lot of what I loved about L.A. seems to be gone."
Particularly saddening to Baitz was the loss of the Padua Hills Playwrights' Workshops in Northridge, where he began his playwriting career in 1982, and the closing of the Los Angeles Theatre Center, which staged "The Film Society," his first nationally successful play.
"The context for theater here is vastly diminished," Baitz says. "When I was starting there were so many different groups and places to go. I don't know what young playwrights are supposed to do here anymore, or where they're supposed to work."
Baitz was indeed luckier than today's neophytes. He discovered writing for the stage at the start of Southern California's theater boom in the early 1980s.
Because his father was an executive for a multinational corporation, Baitz spent his childhood years in South Africa, Brazil, Amsterdam and London. A voracious reader, Baitz soothed his loneliness and alienation with literature. His longtime companions were always books. He returned at age 17 to Los Angeles and found himself in "a gulag of style over content"--Beverly Hills High School.
After graduation, and before wandering into a Padua workshop, Baitz toyed with vague fantasies of becoming a ceramist. Baitz resembled an accidental tourist, not an ambitious visionary, shuffling into the theater to be born.
"I came to the theater out of literature, not out of the theater," Baitz explains. "I came out of being a reader. The writing is more meaningful to me."
At Padua, Baitz fell under the tutelage of playwright John Steppling, whose encouragement led Baitz, at age 21, to write and produce his first professional production, "Mizlansky/Zilinsky," a satire about small-scale film producers. That debut led to Baitz's signing with William Morris agent Michael Peretzian, who became another primary mentor.