Family Ties That Bind
Jon Robin Baitz on the Huntington Theatre Company production of Ten Unknowns.
Now 40, Baitz continues to mine the rich deposits of childhood and family conflict in ways that resonate with both stage and screen audiences. One recent evening in Boston, he went over to the Huntington Theatre Company to tinker with Ten Unknowns, which opened here on May 22. Baitz loves the idea that, in theater, he "gets to stay up late" and he is enthusiastic about the generosity of the Huntington which, he says, did "almost workshop-like work with me" during rehearsals.
Ten Unknowns is an example of the playwright's ongoing exploration of core themes of "frustration and family." The story concerns a kind of patriarchal artist, Malcolm Raphelson, who has exiled himself to Mexico for 28 years after his representational style of painting lost favor amid New York's infatuation with Abstract Expressionism. An avaricious art dealer shows up hoping to engineer Raphelson's comeback; a troubled rich kid and an attractive scientist concerned for the future of the planet complete a kind of ad hoc family group.
TheaterMania's David Finkle, in his review of the 2001 Lincoln Center Theater production of Ten Unknowns, wrote that Baitz drives home the family theme with the tale that Raphelson tells the young man about the artist Robert Rauschenberg erasing a drawing of the older Willem de Kooning--in a sense, "killing Papa." That theme is still central to Ten Unknowns but Baitz explains that, to some extent, the original production was unfinished. "With each production, I try to learn more about the relationships in the play," he says. "The current production and the Lincoln Center production don't resemble one another at all." In the play, "I try to look at what it means to own art and make art, to be an artist." The Huntington production allowed him to re-examine the issue of the ownership of the paintings: "I looked harder at how I got to the end of the play and how it concludes."
So, when did Baitz get serious about theater? It was probably after the rejection of his first play, which he describes as being about "a funeral and a lot of other things." Following that first abortive attempt at joining the theater world, he says, "You take the leap into writing from the heart and brain. You commit to it." (It didn't hurt that the rejection letter contained constructive and encouraging comments. What if the Actors Theatre had sent a form letter? Turn that around: What if all rejection letters offered helpful advice?)
According to Baitz, this is how the funeral play came about: "I had been going to the theater a lot and reading a lot of plays. In your early 20s, plays reverberate for some people the way rock music does. I thought I wanted to be a part of it but probably not as an actor." It occurred to him that playwriting might be the answer. Around this time, Baitz saw two Chekhov productions that were critically important to him: The Cherry Orchard at the late, great LA Theatre Works and a legendary Seagull at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. Something hit him hard: "I understood what everyone was doing and why they were doing it and how. I saw the bones of the plays, and the heat. I understood the anger under the plays." He wanted to try to achieve that kind of writing himself, to "sustain an imaginary world with the texture and gradation of the actual world."
Baitz believes that "Chekhovian anger comes from paralysis and impotence." He admires "how quietly it seeps to surfaces but is brutal at the same time. You understand why people are so unhappy in Chekhov's plays." Chekhov is writing about "what it is to be human and civilized and frustrated," says Baitz, and he can relate to that. He aspires to Chekhov's skill in being "hilarious and simultaneously heartbreaking."
So today, no longer a child prodigy, Baitz returns to the imaginary world of Ten Unknowns, his own "allegory of family." He seems to feel an urgency to continuously refine his understanding of "how hard it is for family members to be kind, to just love one another." Ten Unknowns is not about the relative merits of Abstract Expressionism and representational painting (Baitz himself loves artists as varied as Franz Kline, Achille Gorky, and Boston's portraitist John Singer Sargent). In addition to being about frustration and family, it deals with the protagonist's creative meltdown. "I identify with pretty much all the people in the play in different ways," Baitz asserts. To one extent or another, he has shared the aging artist's "sense of exile floating around in me," the young assistant's feeling of impotence, and the scientist's concern for diverse forms of life on earth. He even understands the art dealer's avarice.