Jon Robin Baitz,

Jon Robin Baitz,

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 27 1998 3:30 AM

Jon Robin Baitz,

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       The peace of Memorial Day weekend is over. New York at its loudest and most voracious is back in business. My boyfriend, director Joe Mantello, has come back home from working on a new play in Seattle to a firestorm: Our friend Terrence McNally's new play, Corpus Christi, which was to be produced by Manhattan Theatre Club next season and directed by Joe, has been canceled for "security reasons."
       This, after a creepy tabloid columnist from the New York Post named Ward Morehouse III ran with some gossipy, speculative "insider's story" about the play's "gay Christ having sex with his disciples." Without bothering to see or read the play, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, William Donahue (oft described as a nut with a fax machine, but perhaps he's more; perhaps better-funded and with a big audience out there?), began a feverish letter writing campaign. TWA, a corporate sponsor of the theater, withdrew very, very quickly. And, of course, it didn't take long after the Post's Gay Christ headline for the inevitable anonymous phoned threats to burn down the theater and kill "the Jews, the faggots, and McNally." Manhattan Theatre Club became extremely freaked out and, regrettably, acting out of concern for safety, pulled the plug. Terrence was in despair. And Donahue exulted over the decision to cancel the play, proclaiming in his best mullah fashion that anyone else who considered producing it would face "a war that no one will forget." Shades of a fatwa, no?
       By yesterday, it had become a big story. Athol Fugard pulled his new play from Manhattan Theatre Club in protest. A New York Times reporter called Joe for quotes. (Another Times writer called me.) The phones rang. A jarring, infuriating, depressing day.
       What made Joe especially sad and furious was the damage being done to a new, fragile, unfinished play, a work in progress, which could now probably never be seen without the patina of a scandal à la Andres Serrano's Piss Christ--or a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit--all this, before anyone had ever even seen the work itself. The Post reporter, a Murdoch boy, of course, just one of the tribes of nasty commentators and gossip mongers who thrive in this town, had done his work well. So much of New York theater life is about ill will. Society news. Feeding frenzies. And sometimes you can feel the Evelyn Waugh wretchedness in the air. So much frivolity and gossip and scooping that you can sometimes hear the murmuring commentators doing their thing before they've done it. You have to have a thick skin, and the big fight is not to become hardened. A couple of months ago, another nasty columnist from the Daily News called me for a quote about the aging subscribers at MTC. When I told him that the Daily News was not the place for a dialogue on the state of any theater and that he was basically destructive and loveless and had never done any good for anyone, his response was: "Yes, true, I never claimed not to be what you say. I am a bottom feeder. You should be grateful I don't work at the Times. Think of the damage I could do then."
       But by this morning, Tony Kushner, Craig Lucas, and other playwrights, myself included, were figuring out how to respond. A response is important. A statement was being drafted deploring the squelching of freedom of expression and calling on the mayor of New York City and the governor of New York for protection for the artists, staff, and patrons. Writers are being asked to sign it. I cannot imagine any writer I know not signing. Manhattan Theatre Club has been a brave venue for new work in the past--Terrence has done many plays there, as have Sam Shepard, Richard Nelson, and Richard Greenburg, just to name a few.
       I hope that the theater might hear louder voices than those of the hatemongers and kooks, that MTC might hear their allies and reconsider their decision. It goes to the core of asking what kind of theater are we going to have. Is it to be vital and useful, or irrelevant and drowned out in the chaotic noise of television, etc.?
       In the meantime, I am trying to get through a pile of plays about 2 feet high. Next year I am going to teach play writing at the Juilliard School. I took the job because I thought that young, fresh voices just beginning, young writers still enthusiastic about the possibility that the theater might be a vital part of the culture, might in fact teach me. And as I read the submissions from prospective students, I realize that I was right. It's a tonic. It's a hope.

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz is the author of The Substance of Fire, Three Hotels, A Fair Country, The End of the Day, The Film Society and, most recently, Mizlansky/Zilinsky: or "schmucks."