Jon Robin Baitz’s play eloquently evokes political despair in the age of 9/11 and Bush
Maggie and Patty are sisters, handsome women of intelligence. Maggie is in her 60s, Patty a dozen years younger––and after Patty’s absence from New York, during which interval 9/11 and a couple of wars have happened, they’re sitting together at a table in the restaurant near the river on Tribeca’s Desbrosses Street that’s been Maggie’s favorite for years.
It is October 31, the Sunday before Election Day 2004.
Patty has news. She’s leaving for Paris, permanently.
“So many factors. This election, for one.”
For another, she’s been fired from her job at the good, gray middlebrow newspaper that, she feels, has so “entirely abdicated its [Bush era] responsibilities” as to “become the Switzerland of newspapers.”
In short, Patty’s had it.
“I’m so angry all the time, and I’m tired of being angry. And New York.. This return to business as usual. This appalling homogeneity.”
Her sister flares up.
“This is my city,” says Maggie. “My beautiful goddamn city, do you hear me! I won’t have this whining of yours. It’s pathetic. This is our city. We are not Americans: We are New Yorkers! It’s not the same thing.”
And I, reading this play, “My Beautiful Goddamn City,” a short work––only 15 pages––by Jon Robin Baitz, feel tears wanting to come into my eyes.
It is one of nine short plays by nine leading American playwrights that, taken together, comprise “The Downtown Plays,” a Drama Dept. evening eight times a week (Tuesdays through Sundays) at Pace University’s Schimmel Center as keystone of this city’s First Annual Tribeca Theater Festival, October 16-31.
The other playwrights are Paul Rudnick, Henry Hwang, Frank Pugliese, Douglas Carter Beane, Neil Labute, Warren Leight, Kenneth Lonergan and Wendy Wasserstein.
A very distinguished batch, but of the half-dozen scripts I read, “My Goddamn Beautiful City” was the one I really liked. It not only spoke to 9/11 and the current political scene and sore, wounded, defiant New York, uptown as well as down, but it did so not exactly in the voice but certainly in the overtones and undertones of two humane, indispensable, crush-proof writers––Irwin Shaw (“The Girls in Their Summer Dresses”) and J.D. Salinger (“The Catcher in the Rye”).
So I called up Jon Robin Baitz, who was out at Sag Harbor, and who said: “That was my neighborhood, Tribeca. My office was on Desbrosses Street, and the restaurant in the play is a real restaurant on Desbrosses Street. And I… I… Let me put it this way. I’m very sentimental about my city and the importance of the arts in it.
“I was away from Manhattan for a year and a half, out on the West Coast, for family reasons, but I never really want to be far from it, physically and emotionally. So the idea of doing this play as part of the Tribeca Theater Festival means a lot to me. Writing it, I struggled to rein in my feelings about the city and my feelings of profound political alienation.”
Baitz didn’t succeed. It is there, not only between the lines but, in the case of defecting Patty, right in the lines, from first to last.
Baitz’s track record includes “The Substance of Fire,” “Three Hotels,” “A Fair Country,” “Ten Unknowns,” and “Chinese Friends.”
“I write these plays,” said Baitz, “to work out my problem of the moment, and to locate myself within a problem; to illustrate for myself where I am. Those two women [Maggie and Patty] are essentially me arguing with myself. Actually, this short piece has sparked a desire to investigate these characters further.”
Maggie has as much contempt as her younger sister for the current holders of the White House. “These people you’re voting for,” she has said to a Republican uncle, “Bush and Cheney, these are people you’d never have in your homes, you’d never be in business with.”
Maggie was in New York on 9/11; Patty, like Jon Robin Baitz, was not.
“We will not discuss what was seen on that day,” Maggie says to her sister. “A day when you were, I believe, in Santa Monica… It was different if you were here.”
Out there in Sag Harbor, the playwright gave a sigh that could be heard over the telephone.
“Aaaah,” he said. “I was… in Los Angeles… and my… what can I say? Having been gone on that day, I would have done anything to be home, to be helping, to be witness, to be hoping… And just because I was gone, doesn’t make the heartache any less.”
Jon Robin Baitz was born, as a matter of fact, in Los Angeles, on November 4, 1961 but, thanks to his father being a multinational corporate executive, was raised, he says, “all over the world.” At the moment, no longer in a relationship, he lives alone with a three-legged dog named Trip.
At 21, Baitz studied writing, and “vowed to myself I would go to New York only when invited to” as a playwright. In 1987 the invitation came from Second Stage, which mounted his first play. “The Film Society”––”about the corrupt nature of power”––first in Chelsea, then in Tribeca.
All nine plays of those Tribeca Festival evenings (and matinees) are directed by John Rando. The actors of “My Beautiful Goddamn City” are Maria Tucci and Julie White as the sisters, Peter Jacobson as the stoic, literate restaurant owner.
Baitz was asked whether he is thinking of leaving this city, this country?
“No, not at all,” came the answer. “I’m going to stay and fight it out. It’s just my place.”
Not just yours. But for this reaffirming little piece of it, many thanks.