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"It's a little like the day an AARP card arrives on your 50th birthday and you blanch a little and then you grin a little," says playwright Jon Robin Baitz on the occasion of his first New York revival, which the Keen Company will stage when The Film Society opens Oct. 1.
You'd think that this seasoned playwright (The Substance of Fire, Three Hotels, the Broadway and regional hit Other Desert Cities) would already have seen plenty of remountings of his plays, but he hasn't. What's ironic about The Film Society marking his first major New York revival is that when it opened in 1988 at Second Stage (after a premiere in Los Angeles), it might easily have been mistaken for a revival of an older play---a work of recent vintage by, say, Simon Gray or Alan Bennett. Set among feuding English schoolteachers at a crumbling private boys' school in Durban, South Africa, in 1970, it had a distinct twilight-of-the-empire feeling, with witty repartee over tea or whiskey barely masking an uncomprehending horror of the changing world outside.
It also treated its characters' political compromises and career resentments with a resigned wisdom that bespoke a writer of some years and experience, not to mention a mid-Atlantic pedigree.
In fact, Baitz was a 27-year-old Los Angeles native, and it was his first two-act play. Now 51, Baitz has more life experience, good and bad, under his belt -- including a bitter fight that saw him kicked off the TV show he created, Brothers and Sisters. And he now sees The Film Society as the work of "a very sad young man, very upset with himself for what he saw as his own moral cowardice." He continues, "It's very carefully plotted, that play, but it does firmly establish my interest in discussing how our political lives are mostly made up, imagined things, vaporous positions, and fairly fluid." All but quoting Bob Dylan, he adds, "I think I was a little older back then than I am now."
The current revival stars Euan Morton (in a role Nathan Lane played in 1988) as Jonathan Balton, an idealistic young teacher at Blenheim School, who hopes to broaden his young charges' minds with weekly screenings of classic films. Despite his best efforts to stay above the fray, he gets embroiled in an ugly battle between the school's racist, revanchist old guard and his two closest friends, a married couple who are fellow teachers and anti-apartheid activists. Baitz, the son of an executive for the Carnation company, based some of the play on a few formative school years he spent in South Africa, where his headmaster, like Balton, had once been a radio actor.
"I have no way of talking about South Africa now," Baitz hastens to say. "I did go back in the '90s and went to one of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, and got a ride back to Johannesburg from Pretoria with Athol Fugard, whom I knew a little bit. There was slightly a menacing vibe, and a few burning cars and tires here and there." A sense of menace is chief among the things he remembers from his younger years there: "There was a dominant terror of black people, which was just under the surface of the daily discourse there. 'When is the revolt going to happen?' 'Do you have your guns ready?' It was nothing if not weird."
Revisiting the play today, though, Baitz wonders if, rather than politics or pedagogy, "young Mr. Baitz was writing about something else---and that something else is sex and death." He elaborates: "Jonathan is sort of asexual, and life in 1986 for gay men was scary because we were dying of AIDS and nobody knew how to stop it. I think subconsciously there's a lot of sex terror in the play---a kind of weird, hysterical aversion to being touched. From loving comes dying." Ultimately, he says, The Film Society ends up being "about an ineffectual and vaguely benign man who, it turns out, is very dangerous and knows how dangerous life is."
Another thing he recalled from those singular school days: the putter and glow of the classroom film projector.
"I loved canisters of film," Baitz says, warming up to a reverie of a lost age. "You could rent a projector and a movie back then in South Africa. It was great, that odd click click click of the sprockets. I like the non-electronic, non-streaming world I grew up in. Not to drown in nostalgia here, but nobody ever gets lost anymore, and getting lost is good for the imagination, it's good for the brain, as is reading a map. I liked movies a lot more before everyone in them had a cell phone. I think the play depends on the small rituals of escape -- Jonathan today need merely download something onto his iPad and he can escape to his hearts' content. He need never glance up."
Or, like Baitz after all these years, Jonathan might find solace in another time-worn ritual.
"The theatre is a little bit like Jonathan's film society---a communal dark place to escape to and discover stuff in."
Rob Weinert-Kendt is Senior Editor at American Theatre magazine