The year 2008 got off to a lousy start for Jon Robin Baitz, when ABC executives ousted him from Brothers & Sisters, the television drama that he created and produced. After repeatedly clashing over artistic direction (the executives, Baitz contested, had none), ABC cut Baitz loose and continued the show without him at the helm. Baitz wasn't shy about his disgust for the situation, venting in public and in blog posts, and he later admitted to having a breakdown. He retreated from L.A. to New York to write a play, setting himself on the path to validation and vindication -- and just a little bit of revenge.
It wasn't easy. Baitz said that after his Hollywood debacle, it was as if he had to relearn how to write. He finally emerged victorious with Other Desert Cities, which premiered off Broadway in 2011 (where it was a huge success) before transferring to Broadway later that year (where it was an even bigger success). It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and received a Tony nomination for Best Play. But more importantly, Other Desert Cities accomplished what Baitz had been denied the opportunity to accomplish with Brothers & Sisters: to write an entertaining meditation on families and political gridlock -- a play about "what America was like right now."
In Other Desert Cities, an already tense family gathering is made even more so when daughter Brooke announces that she's about to publish a memoir that will spill secrets and reopen old wounds. The five family members span the political spectrum, from liberal hippies to GOP celebrities. But perhaps most notably, the play doesn't take a side in the political debate. James Still, director of the Indiana Repertory Theatre's upcoming production of ODC, notes that sympathy shifts constantly between members of the family and that everybody in the play is more complicated than they seem on the surface.
"[The play has] been done all over the country, and it's going to have a different resonance wherever it plays based on audience members' personal politics," he says, "but I think what interests me about it is ... every character in this play has flaws. It is not saying, 'This character has this point of view and is therefore more likable or more complex.'"
Baitz, himself a liberal who acknowledges his politics have become less simplistic the older he gets, said last year, "I take pride in not truly understanding anything other than all the shades of gray: I don't know anything about black and white but am obsessed with gray." In ODC, that's pushed to the forefront.
Other Desert Cities explores family dynamics, a topic with which Still says American audiences have an ongoing fascination. Even if the exploration of family is nothing new, Still appreciates how Baitz approaches the genre, bringing his own twists to the narrative.
Still says, "It's about parents and grown children, and a moment in the family's life when the grown children have made a decision that challenges and threatens the family's idea of who it is, its identity. It asks the question: When is our own desire to understand the truth about ourselves, when is that more important -- or not -- than the feelings of the people that you love?"
However, despite their differences, when push comes to shove, Still believes that this family is in it for better or for worse. But negotiating those differences is what makes the narrative so compelling.
"I think [Other Desert Cities] generates conversation and points of view, and it challenges us to potentially talk about things that are difficult to talk about.That can be one of the great things about art: it can stir the pot," Still says. "Getting people to care about anything these days is a wonderful thing." Yes, it certainly is.
Add in the fact that it's also a giant middle finger to certain Hollywood execs, and you've basically got a can't-miss show.