Mizlansky/Silinsky, pr. 1985, revised pr. 1997 (as Mizlansky/Zilinsky: Or, “Schmucks”)
The Film Society, pb. 1987 (as a play in process), pr. 1988
Dutch Landscape, pr. 1989
The Substance of Fire, pr., pb. 1991
Three Hotels, pr. 1991 (teleplay), pr., pb. 1993 (staged)
The End of the Day, pr., pb. 1992
The Substance of Fire, and Other Plays, pb. 1993
A Fair Country, pb. 1996
Hedda Gabler, pr., pb. 2000 (adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play)
Ten Unknowns, pr. 2001
The Substance of Fire, 1996 (adaptation of his play)
People I Know, 2003
Jon Robin Baitz is hailed for plays that examine outsiders gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a conscience, who must face political and ethical dilemmas which necessitate taking a moral stand. He was born in Beverly Hills, California, the son of a Carnation brand milk company executive. Because of his father’s work, Baitz spent his formative years overseas, in Brazil, Israel, England, Holland, and six critical years (1971-1977) in Durban, South Africa, when resistance to that country’s policy of apartheid was manifest in the streets. After returning to California (where he felt like an expatriate), Baitz opted not to pursue college but rather his first love: theater. He worked as a gofer for two minor independent Hollywood producers, which became the subject of his first work, the one-act Mizlansky/Silinsky.
Receiving plaudits for his fast-paced dialogue (reminiscent of that penned by David Mamet), Baitz turned to South Africa as the subject of his first full-length drama, The Film Society. A white film teacher who has used the shelter of his South African preparatory school to avoid confronting political realities must choose between furthering his own career or taking a stand against the local racist government. When the play moved to New York, Baitz, at twenty-seven, earned comparisons to Arthur Miller and David Hare and won the prestigious Oppenheimer Award. After his follow-up work, Dutch Landscape, an ambitious family drama set uneasily within an anti-apartheid plot, drew hostile reviews in Los Angeles, Baitz relocated to New York and, at age thirty, began what was essentially his comeback.
The Substance of Fire, his first New York success, examined the dilemma of Isaac Geldhart, the aging head of a once-thriving publishing house devoted to Holocaust studies. His sons contest control of the business when Isaac, a Holocaust survivor, risks bankruptcy by publishing a massive history of Nazi medical experiments. When Isaac loses financial control of the company (his sons want to pursue more lucrative trashy novels), the proud, intractable father begins, Lear-like, the harrowing process of confronting his tormented past.
Baitz’s next major work, Three Hotels, explores the cost of compromising on moral matters. Kenneth Hoyle, an idealist who came of age in the 1960’s Peace Corps, is now a 1980’s-era predatory corporate executive for a multinational baby food conglomerate. He confronts his moral surrender, having masterminded a program to convince mothers in developing countries to abandon breast-feeding for formula inevitably tainted by brackish water. Baitz also records the loneliness of Hoyle’s wife and the price she has paid for her privileged lifestyle: the murder of their only son because he wore an expensive watch to a Brazilian beach. In the closing act, the wife has fled the marriage, and Hoyle has been ousted by the same ruthless corporate games that created him. Each act is a monologue, the character alone on stage, revealing himself or herself via anguished confession.
In A Fair Country, short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, Baitz returned to the South Africa of the 1970’s. Harry Burgess, a career diplomat posted in Durban, risks his own son, a radical journalist involved in the resistance to apartheid, by turning over names of his son’s political friends in order to secure a safer posting for his family in The Hague. This decision ultimately costs Harry everything. Again, Baitz examines political issues through the vehicle of the family, creating dramatic intensities that engender in the audience both emotional and intellectual responses.
In 1996, Baitz himself began a period of agonized introspection after undergoing life-threatening open-heart surgery. He found himself unable to write when he was approached to revise his first play for a radio production. In the process, he got in touch with his own younger self. This artistic revival led to an entirely reconceived production, Mizlansky/Zilinsky, a satiric look (recalling the work of Neil Simon) at two small-time, burned-out Hollywood hucksters. Lacking Baitz’s signature sociopolitical element, the drama is nevertheless a morality play. While examining the problem of Jewish assimilation into American culture, it involves a scheme to produce children’s Bible story tapes as a tax shelter that requires dealing with an anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust actually happened.
Not surprisingly, Baitz’s first original work following his medical trauma, Ten Unknowns, focuses on a reclusive figural painter neglected by the abstract expressionist chic of the 1960’s and being coaxed out of seclusion for a 1990’s revival. The play critiques the shallowness of the contemporary art community and its willingness to barter aesthetic standards for mercenary returns.
Also in 1996, Baitz commenced a love-hate relationship with Hollywood, working on the film adaptation of The Substance of Fire and then appearing in two ensemble films. He originally wrote Three Hotels for PBS, and he completed a second screenplay, People I Know, concerning a New York theatrical publicist whose client is embroiled in murder. Although acknowledging the diminishing audience for theater and intrigued by the reach of both film and television, Baitz prefers the creative isolation of playwriting and the visceral impact of performance.