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Jon Robin Baitz gets the last word with 'Other Desert Cities'

Fired after creating 'Brothers & Sisters' for TV, Jon Robin Baitz says his Broadway play 'Other Desert Cities' fulfills what he hoped the series would have become.

November 03, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Rachel Griffiths, left, stars in the Broadway play "Other Desert Cities," written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, right.
Rachel Griffiths, left, stars in the Broadway play "Other Desert… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — — Hollywood spits out writers all the time. But it's not often that a writer gets the chance to spit back — and on the world's biggest stage, no less.

Yet Jon Robin Baitz has precisely that opportunity in his lyrical new Broadway play "Other Desert Cities," which he hopes can achieve an improbable goal: fulfill the unmet ambition of an ABC series he conceived but was basically fired from four years ago.

"On 'Brothers & Sisters,' I tried to write a show about an emerging matriarch and what America was like right now," he says of the politically minded family drama that ran for five seasons, the last four without its creator. "I didn't get to explore that on television. But I ended up being able to tell that story on Broadway."

It's a few hours after the curtain has dropped on a preview performance of "Cities," just days before the show's Thursday opening at the Booth Theatre. (It will arrive in Los Angeles late next year at the Mark Taper Forum.) Dressed in a casual button-down shirt and wearing owlish Harry Potter glasses, Baitz is dining at a popular midtown Manhattan theater hangout with the actress Rachel Griffiths, the "Brothers & Sisters" star who also anchors this incarnation of "Cities." A Drama Desk-nominated and Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted playwright of works such as "The Substance of Fire" and "A Fair Country," Baitz has, surprisingly, never had a show on Broadway, and the experience, after the debacle of "Sisters," appears to have brought him a mix of anxiety and vindication.

He would be justified in both feelings. In 2007, after a stand-off with ABC executives over the creative direction of the series — he wanted a darker and more dramatic tone while the brass craved something shiny and lighter — Baitz was removed from the day-to-day running of the show. He got angry, then depressed. He left Hollywood for the New York theater world in a blaze of resentment, some of which he aired in blog items on the Huffington Post.

But all that frustration, he says, came with a silver lining: It provided fodder for a stage drama. "I felt stifled almost a priori on 'Brothers and Sisters,'" he said. "The show gave me all the reasons to unconsciously think about subjects like the power of women and their emotional lives but not the means to explore them."

Baitz doesn't encounter any such problem in "Cities," which leaves no psychological stone unturned in telling of a Waspish Palm Springs family during a Christmas homecoming. Transferred from Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater and directed by Joe Mantello, Baitz's former life partner and his frequent theater collaborator, "Cities" offers a full-color portrait of guilt, blame and, occasionally, redemption.

In "Cities," the 40-ish writer Brooke (Griffiths) has come west for the holidays to find her hyper-educated family locked in its usual dynamic — argument. Domineering mother Polly (Stockard Channing) rides Brooke about her bohemian New York lifestyle and her liberal views. (The play is set in 2004, and family politics often intersects with the global kind, particularly the policies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney). Father Lyman (Stacy Keach), a retired film actor and Republican-socialite — he and his wife run in blue-chip conservative circles with the likes of "Ronnie and Nancy" — chides but protects his daughter.

Slacker younger brother Trip (Thomas Sadoski), meanwhile, has fallen backward into success as the producer of a trashy TV trial show, implicitly underscoring the failures of his depressive sister. And Polly has her own complicated relationship with sister Silda (Judith Light), a recovering alcoholic who deadpans barbed truths.

As the events unfold over the holiday, revelations spill out like marbles, particularly over Brooke's soon-to-be-published memoir about older brother Henry's suicide. Three actors — Channing, Keach and Sadoski — made the move from Lincoln Center to Broadway. Linda Lavin's Silda is picked up here by Light, while Elizabeth Marvel's Brooke role is taken over by Griffiths. The Australian-born, Los Angeles-dwelling actress has made a living playing the complicated daughter of dysfunctional mothers, first as the emotionally slippery Brenda Chenowith on HBO's "Six Feet Under," then as liberal eldest sister Sarah Walker on "Sisters."

Though Griffiths stayed on the ABC show through its final season, she believes this part also offers her a kind of second chance. "I'd forgotten how to act, really," she said of her work on the series. "I was doing a copy of a copy of a copy of a feeling."

It took a trip to see "Other Desert Cities" at Lincoln Center to invigorate her. "It was like a stem-cell injection that took me back to why I decided to get into acting," she said. "I couldn't believe it when Robbie [Baitz] asked me to be in it and have us work together again." In a phone interview, Sadoski described the pair as communicating in "an almost antipodal shorthand."

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