In his younger days, playwright Jon Robin Baitz was known for his angry young characters, usually in conflict with stubborn members of the older generation. Those bristling, indignant, furious youth fill such plays as "A Fair Country" (produced in Chicago by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1997) and "The Substance of Fire" (produced by the old Organic Theatre in 2002).
But you should hear Baitz, also the author of "Other Desert Cities," now.
"There is a kind of simultaneous growth and attrition as you get older," he said recently, in my first interview with him in some years. "The attrition part is about anger; it becomes very tiring to be an angry young man.
"I see myself in an aging world now. I more readily identify with people who are older, just as readily as I did with people who were of the younger generation. I have begun to see through their eyes how strange change might feel."
Baitz is no aged scribe; he's only 50. But as you watch "Other Desert Cities," currently at the Goodman Theatre — a play wherein a daughter writes a tell-all memoir about her political parents — you see the depth of his sympathy for those on the receiving end of such an indecorous (if necessary) act. And if you've watched a lot of Baitz plays, that is something of a surprise.
"I think you reach a point in your writing life," he said, "when you do want to take stock of the good you've done and the damage you've done and your own reliability as a narrator. It is good to think about the power you wield, and you start to think about the power of your language in a different way."
When the great British playwright David Hare wrote "Skylight," a potent and more political drama currently at the Court Theatre, he was about the same age as Baitz. Here, too, you can see the work of a writer, hitherto known for scorching the political establishment, who has found all kinds of sympathy for a 50-ish entrepreneur, a man at sea after losing control of his corporate empire to bankers and his wise wife to cancer.
In "Skylight," this rich but existentially fearful character shows up in a cold London flat trying to rekindle an affair with an old lover, who has moved in entirely the opposite direction in life. The younger Hare would perhaps have painted him as a rather pathetic figure; in this play, he's as restless and sexually needy as an 18-year-old.
One advantage for both of these very smart scribes, of course, is that people of the age of these more sympathetic characters fall into one of the prime theater-going demographics. That perhaps explains that while Baitz's other plays all premiered either off-Broadway or at nonprofit theaters, "Other Desert Cities" was a big, fat Broadway hit in 2011. And it's now being produced all over the country.
And if you aren't yet at the point in your life when it has become clear that even the apparent pillars of the establishment are just scared kids deep within?
I suggest you take a look this weekend at "The Aliens," the beautifully observed drama by Annie Baker in a warm-hearted production at A Red Orchid Theatre.
Baker, who was born in 1981, is much younger than either Baitz or Hare. Her play does not put 30-ish women in conflict with an older man. Rather, it focuses on 30-ish men who are in conflict with themselves and their path through life.
It's hard to imagine "The Aliens," which is a quietly haunting play, being written by someone much older than Baker. At a certain point, writers tend to either lose patience with slackers — perhaps they have given birth to one of their frustrating own — or look back at their situations from such a remove that they can see them only as temporary or trivial, soon to be eclipsed by other problems in life.
Baker, though, has not yet arrived at that place. For her, these "Aliens" are going through something that is anything but trivial, or so it feels to them, and thus their angst is to be ennobled.
In a few years, perhaps she'll write a play about their parents.
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