Jon Robin Baitz, the author of Other Desert Cities, created the ABC television drama Brothers and Sisters, which is shot in Los Angeles and which begin airing in 2006. After leaving the show - an emotional story that is not my subject here - the playwright moved back east in late 2007.
"It took me a year-and-a-half to decompress after my last stint in L.A.," Baitz told me the other day. "I mostly did that by sitting in Sag Harbor" - where he used to have a cottage - "and trying to reconnect to the theater."
"I tried to teach myself to write plays again," said Baitz, whose acclaimed body of work at Lincoln Center Theater alone includes Substance of Fire, A Fair Country, and Ten Unknowns. He added: "I'd sit out there in Sag and read, and re-read a lot of plays, most of them British. Stoppard, Hare, and so on. I'm an American playwright who, because of an Anglo-African upbringing, had a lot of earlier exposure to British playwrights."
During his re-connection process, Baitz made a notebook about a woman who knows too many secrets about her family. Then, one day, he found himself sitting on a beach. "A lady of a certain age walked by me," he said. "She looked exactly like the mother in my notebook. Suddenly, I saw the whole play." Referring to two well-known Manhattan socialites who died during the past decade, Baitz continued: "I saw this woman as a cross between Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley. And I imposed a kind of sorrow on her."
Baitz wrote the play -- it involves a liberal novelist, played by Elizabeth Marvel, whose recollections about her elder brother differ from those of her conservative parents -- quickly, then tried to rewrite it. "I lost it again," he commented, "because I still wasn't fully back to being a playwright. Among other things, writing for network television dulls your sense of metaphor, of figurative language."
After disposing of a commitment to write a miniseries for HBO about former Vice President Dick Cheney, Baitz turned his attention back to Other Desert Cities. "I finished the play last year on midnight of New Year's Eve. There was a party nearby at the Rifkins' place in Bridgehampton." (Baitz is referring to the actor Ron Rifkin, who has appeared in several of his plays, and Rifkin's wife, Iva.) "I had gone to the party, then left to go finish the play, then returned to the party - in the New Year."
Joe Mantello, the director of Other Desert Cities, got involved with the project early on. "As I spent most of 2010 revising the play," Baitz said, "Joe was invaluable. His rigor is almost Olympian. He knows my West Coast history, which was very helpful in working on the play."
Baitz's West Coast history includes attending Beverly Hills High School. "As a boy," he said, "I would walk around in Beverly Hills and see Fred Astaire and Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant on the street. I was exposed early on to Hollywood Republicans. I was exposed to the sense of ease, a false one, that comes with a certain kind of life on the west coast. And I noticed everything because, after a decade away, after Brazil and South Africa, I was a foreigner in my own home."
In part, Other Desert Cities, which is set in Palm Springs, involves the decline of the show-biz Republicans whose apogee was the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency. "On one level," Baitz said, "I have a great deal of affection and nostalgia for these people. On the other hand, the play comes out of a yearning on my part to criticize the way in which these old-guard Republicans abdicated and let their party become this monstrous thing. While watching silently from little enclaves like Palm Springs, they made a choice to hand that party over to hucksters and sharpies of the right. And now we're seeing the consequences."
Other Desert Cities, like most of Baitz's work, certainly includes crackling discourse about politics. But it is primarily about a family. "The structure of the family," Baitz said, "is the permanent tabula rasa onto which I can project a large number of scenarios of what it is to be an American."
Other Desert Cities also includes plenty of humor. "I'm too old for real, true drama. As I get closer to 50 I realize that you can't be self-serious. Something seems ill-cooked to me now if it isn't funny."
To which I'm tempted to add: it would be impossible to cast women as witty as Stockard Channing, who plays the Republican mother figure, and Linda Lavin, who plays her sister, and not provide enjoyment. Baitz, by the way, admitted that he created the parts with those performers in mind. "Theirs were the voices I heard as I wrote the play."
Other Desert Cities is not only about family and politics and intelligent women. It is also about California. "The play is in some sense about how the West was lost," Baitz said. "And about how California, which is now bankrupt financially, has changed. Look at Palm Springs. I fell in love with it as a boy, and rediscovered the place a few years ago." He added: "Now, what you see there are these paleo-conservatives in maroon Cadillacs mingling happily with hipsters. Everything seems to coexist interestingly."
If the sound of Joan Didion can be detected around this southern California desert vision, Baitz said that the association isn't unintended. "There's this wonderful Saul Bellow notion: a writer is a reader who is moved to emulation. I recognized my California in Joan Didion, and was moved by that recognition to try to create my own."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.