Jon Robin Baitz,

Jon Robin Baitz,

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 26 1998 3:30 AM

Jon Robin Baitz,

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       Memorial Day weekend and my Manhattan emptied out the way it does on this day every year. It becomes a kind of On the Beach theme park: desolate and ghostly and very attractive. I, however, stuck around, finishing (with the help of its Sisyphus-like director) a long, long overdue screenplay. (When I say five years late, I am not exaggerating.) A studio optioned one of my plays, A Fair Country, six years ago, when it still had another title. Every nine or 10 months there would be a polite inquiry as to my "progress." The whole thing reminded me of the way English banks used to handle gentlemen's overdrafts--with tact, paternalism, and wry, fatalistic good humor. The kind you reserve for lost causes or--at best--very, very long shots. Somehow, by late Sunday night, the lost cause went from the former category to the latter.
       But I also stayed in the city because an old friend was getting married on Saturday night. Max is one of the founders and co-artistic-directors of a theater company that takes residence every summer at Vassar College. He and two other people started New York Stage and Film in 1985. Their mandate has been to develop new theater (emphasizing plays, but sometimes little independent screenplays were workshopped as a concession to reality, hence the presence of "Film" in the company name). Every year they invite about a hundred actors, playwrights, and directors to the mid-Hudson Valley to work on their projects. Apprentices, usually college kids from around the country, take classes and work on crews. They present a full season; have smart, generous, spirited subscribers; and provide a good way to work on something not yet finished, away from the mean, brittle glare of Gotham. I tried out two plays there in the early 1990s, Three Hotels and A Fair Country. I first went up there 12 years ago, at 25, as playwright in residence, which basically meant drinking and gossiping and flirting and hanging out with actors, who can be great fun at 3 in the morning in the midst of a six-week heat wave.
       A lot of old friends from the thinned-out ranks of the not-for-profit theater were at this wedding, which took place at Windows on the World on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. (During the ceremony an airplane flew by--below us.) The ceremony was lovely and carefully constructed to reflect the sensitivity of the couple: People read from Cavafy, Eliot, and Rilke. It was very moving. It also made me think. Max had just directed his first movie. And most of the actor guests, people I had sat in dorms with, drinking, 12 years ago, had moved out to L.A. Now there were at least five TV stars among them, wandering the room; laughing, thriving, and prosperous; relaxed in ways they had probably forgotten out in L.A.--they were home, after all. With family.
       Looking around the room, you could see how the theater had changed. I counted the other playwrights on hand--most of us, over the years, had been moving ever so slightly away from the theater and into some middle ground between Hollywood and Broadway, doing a little dance. Twelve years ago, with the NEA still sort of functional, you could spend a year and hop from regional theater to regional theater--from, say, the Seattle Rep to the Taper in L.A.--work on a play, making sort of a living, and eventually bring the thing in to New York. That little system seems to have shrunk down a bit.
       But it was a lovely wedding. We all sat around drinking, old, good friends looking at our emptied-out city down below and catching up. Laura was designing costumes for Woody Allen's new movie, and Chris was playing the bad guy in a big-ticket thriller. Leslie, one of the co-founders, with Max, of New York Stage and Film, flew in (and right back out) from Italy, where she was producing her first big-budget studio picture in Rome and Tuscany, starring Kevin Klein and Michelle Pfeiffer. The title: William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. But the director was taking screenplay credit. Les, over a glass of champagne, told me, "It's a great script ..."

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."