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This Gofer Has Become a Definite Go-To Guy

With 'Mizlansky/Zilinsky's' return, Jon Robin Baitz looks back at how far he's come.

March 26, 2000|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar. Her oral history, "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work," will be published by William Morrow in October

NEW YORK — When playwright Jon Robin Baitz was 20, he went to work for two charismatic, problem-plagued Hollywood producers. He answered their phones. He picked up their laundry and deli orders. And he took voracious notes.

The result was "Mizlansky/Zilinsky," Baitz's tough but affectionate look at the fringes of movie-making. The play, first produced in a small theater near Melrose Avenue in 1985, won an LA Weekly Award and essentially launched the young playwright's career. Revisited and revised in the late '90s, the play opens at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday starring Michael Lerner as Mizlansky and David Groh as Zilinsky.

As in Larry Gelbart's musical "City of Angels" and John Patrick Shanley's "Four Dogs and a Bone"--the latter of which inaugurated the Geffen--Baitz's movie producers don't fare too well. Davis Mizlansky and Sam Zilinsky, producers of such films as "Lover of Mink" and "Hitler's Niece," are now tax shelter mavens, stacking Kmart shelves with such children's Bible story records as "Revelation Revealed" and "Sodom and Gomorrah: The True Story!!"

Besides creating a Baitz-like gofer named Paul Trecker, the Los Angeles-born Baitz also tosses in some offstage ex-wife voices and an actor whose resume includes being eaten by snakes in a film and playing Tintoretto, art detective, on TV. Also on hand is actor Wayne Rogers as a bigoted Oklahoman with a chunk of money in his pocket from his dentist investors.

"Doing this play in Los Angeles is very important to me," says Baitz, now 38. "This is sort of a valentine to extinct outlaws, and to a city that I really love."

A graduate of Beverly Hills High School, Baitz honed his craft not in college, which he did not attend, but rather at the now-defunct Padua Hills Playwrights' Festival. He followed "Mizlansky/Zilinsky" with "The Film Society," which drew on his experiences growing up in South Africa and traveled from the Los Angeles Theatre Center to London, New York and San Francisco. That play, wrote critic Charles Marowitz, was as "auspicious" a premiere as John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger" or Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party."

But as the Padua festival wound down, Baitz says, "theater was finally, unfortunately, occluded by the movie business. It didn't make sense to be a playwright and live in Los Angeles."

*

Author of "Three Hotels," "The Substance of Fire" and other plays, Baitz today lives in New York's TriBeCa neighborhood, writing plays and movies in a nearby converted warehouse that is also home to actors Glenn Close, Fisher Stevens and Rob Morrow. But he frequently returns to Los Angeles and just last year adapted "Hedda Gabler" at the Geffen. It was at that time that Geffen producing director Gilbert Cates invited him back to reprise "Mizlansky/Zilinsky."

Nicholas Martin, who is directing "Mizlansky/Zilinsky," calls the work "the funniest and most touching American play since 'You Can't Take It With You,' " and L.A. Theatre Works producing director Susan Loewenberg says the play's promise was already apparent in the version she first produced in 1985. At that time, says Loewenberg, "we decided to produce 'Mizlansky/Zilinsky' after about five minutes. Even in its earliest incarnation, it had all the ingredients of a first-rate satire about Hollywood."

Loewenberg later produced three other Baitz plays for radio broadcast and in the summer of 1997 called Baitz's agent to ask about "Mizlansky/Zilinsky." Baitz, who had tucked the play away in what he calls his "drawer of misery," agreed to take another look and rewrite.

"Without thinking, I said yes," Baitz recalls, "because what good do they do sitting in the drawer? And I'd just gotten over sudden, shocking open-heart surgery." As he later wrote in the New York Times, he went back to "Mizlansky/Zilinsky" again feeling as if he were "administering a kind of literary CPR on myself."

After the play was performed as a radio drama in Los Angeles, the Manhattan Theatre Club followed with a full production in February 1998. "It was a very affectionately received curiosity in New York," says Baitz, whose longtime companion, Joe Mantello, directed the New York show. "Certain plays are meant for certain places. They don't necessarily travel well. 'Mizlansky/Zilinsky' was done at Steppenwolf in Chicago last season, got rave reviews, but nobody came, and it closed two weeks early. I think it seemed as remote there as Peking Opera."

Better to bring it home again, where at least they'll recognize all those references to Ship's restaurant and Trader Vic's. "What's also exceptional to me about the Los Angeles production," Baitz says, "is that its cast has a meticulous sense of existing very much in the world of the play.

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