TheJewish JournalAPRIL 7, 2000 2 NISAN, 5760

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Coming Full Circle

Jon Robin Baitz Confronts a Younger Self While Revamping an Early Work

By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz
Photo by Patricia Williams

Before Robbie Baitz was Jon Robin Baitz, the playwright, he was, in his words, "a smart-ass little spoiled Beverly Hills snot" who worked as a gofer for a couple of Hollywood con artists. Rather than sensibly going East to college, he had elected to remain in Los Angeles to glean some life experience, and so had fallen in with "a den of thieves," he says.

He took the gofer job out of "sheer necessity," he adds, as his parents were living abroad and he had been fired, after just five hours, from a previous job as a waiter. Thereafter, the gofer-slave spent endless days tooling around Los Angeles in his rusty orange VW Rabbit, searching for just the right brand of Genoa tuna or smoked Hunan peppers for his despotic but lovable bosses.

In an essay published in The New York Times, he recalls how he "picked up ... laundry (stains remaining, I was blamed); Chinese food (the real cause of same); answered phones (danger, creditors)," and fell in love with the producers and their "pageantry of damage control."

They were Jewish exiles on the fringes of Hollywood, "never quite let into the party," Baitz says. And they loved the bright but whiny gofer because he was also an outsider: Baitz had attended an Anglican boys school in South Africa, where he was reviled as the "American 'Jew' kid, the sole child with black hair." He had lived all over the world with his parents, always feeling like an exile, a "wandering Jew."

Back in his native Los Angeles in the 1980s, he was captivated by his employers' byzantine, elusive business dealings, which seemed like rich material for a play. "It was theatrical," says Baitz, now 38, one of the most produced playwrights of his generation. "It was like a Neil Simon version of 'Death of a Salesman,' with all the little dramas of trying to get to the next good deal."

A scene from "Mizlansky/Zilinisky":
(l-r) George Wyner, David Groh,
Michael Lerner, Wayne Rogers
and Richard Kline.

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Well endowed with chutzpah, the young writer took copious notes of his experience, unabashedly scribbling observations even in front of his bosses. The result was his first produced play, "Mizlansky/Zilinsky, or Schmucks," a one-act about desperate hucksters on the fringes of showbiz. The "skeleton of a play," he says, launched his career: Produced in 1985 at a tiny, off-Melrose storefront theater, it earned Baitz an L.A. Weekly Award. He was all of 22, and hardly surprised by his success. "I had such an entitlement complex," he recalls, "that my response was, 'This is right. What's next?'"

Baitz went on to make a name for himself with a series of acclaimed plays, some featuring Jewish characters in moral crisis. "The Substance of Fire" tells of a book publisher, a Holocaust survivor, who risks bankruptcy and the love of his children rather than compromise his principles. "Three Hotels" focuses on a self-hating Jew who loses his soul to the corporate beast.

By the late 1990s, Baitz himself was working for the corporate beast, as a screenwriter-for-hire: "a frustrating experience," he recalls. "It left me feeling practically worthless as a writer," he told The New York Times. "The variables that I could not control just stymied me. I was left feeling impotent." Baitz felt a bit like Clifford Odets, the idealistic New York playwright who languished in Hollywood.

Then came his brush with death, courtesy of a heart-valve infection that required hasty surgery in 1996. Afterwards, Baitz was left with a nasty case of writer's block, as melancholia was, in his words, hardly a useful state for writing.

(l) Michael Lerner plays Davis Mizlansky
and (r) David Groh portrays Sam Zilinsky
in Jon Robin Baitz's "Mizlansky/Zilinsky."

Photo by Patricia Williams

It was "Mizlansky/Zilinsky" that pulled him out of the slump, he says. For years, the one-act had been relegated to his "drawer of misery," the repository for languishing projects at his apartment in New York's TriBeCa district. Baitz essentially forgot about "Mizlansky/Zilinsky" until one day in 1997, when he received a call from the play's original producers at L.A. Theatre Works.

They wanted permission to revive the play for radio, and Baitz acquiesced, assuming he would only have to do some minor re-writing of the piece. Instead, he reread the play and was aghast to find "the unformed writing of a young man." "The thought of its being recorded was unbearable," he wrote in an essay. "I went back to work on the piece out of those twin slave drivers: shame and fear."

In the process, he was re-introduced to a younger, more exuberant version of himself, which provided Baitz with "a trajectory back to the world of the living." It felt as though he were reawakening himself with "a kind of literary CPR."

This month, the new "Mizlansky/Zilinsky" is reborn at the Geffen Playhouse, now a full-length play with a number of new characters. One of them is Baitz's alter-ego, Paul Trecker, a young gay man who is described in the script as "Mizlansky's slave." The subtitle, "Schmucks," is gone, for the piece is a gentler, more nostalgic comedy, a valentine to Los Angeles and its "extinct outlaws."

Yet like all of his plays, there are moral lessons to be learned, especially in the case of Jewish characters who are willing to sacrifice their identities to succeed. The question is whether Mizlansky, Zilinsky and their associates will make a deal with the devil, who appears in the form of a potential backer who is a Holocaust revisionist and anti-Semite. "The quandary is, 'How much are you willing to humiliate yourself in order to get by?'" Baitz says. "It's an old question of identity."

"Mizlansky/Zilinsky" runs Tuesdays-Sundays through April 23 at the Geffen, 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood. For tickets and information, call (310) 208-5454.

Art Metrano

Shining Solo Turns

Theater Roundup: Metrano, Connor Tell Their Stories

By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor

Even after he fell 12 feet and broke his neck in three places, there was something of the Borscht Belt tummler in Art Metrano. "Schmuck," he told himself. "You fell on your own property. You can't even sue yourself."

The accident and its aftermath form the centerpiece of his acclaimed solo show, "Metrano's Accidental Comedy," now at the Odyssey, which is by turns searing and hilarious. The 63-year-old performer speaks of growing up Sephardic in Brooklyn; of working the lousiest hotels in the Catskills; of appearing on "Carson" with his comic schlocky magician act, "The Amazing Metrano" and portraying Lt. Mauser in the "Police Academy" movies.

He also tells of the morning in September 1989 that forever changed his life. While hosing down a second-story balcony of a house he was renovating, Metrano fell headfirst off a ladder and suffered the notorious Hangman's Break, which is almost always fatal. It was while he was in the hospital that he began the oral diary, on a voice-activated tape recorder, that he eventually turned into a play. And it was his humor that kept him alive, he says, when he lost his mobility and the ability to carry his small daughter on his shoulders and when the house where he fell went into foreclosure. Life isn't fair, Metrano concludes: "If it were, Elvis would be alive and all those impersonators would be dead."

The actor, who mostly uses a wheelchair, painfully stands on crutches at the end of the play, a testament to his resilience. "I'm not doing the play for the money, because there is no money," he told The Journal. "The reward comes with the people who surround me after the show, who tell me about the adversity in their lives and how I have given them hope."

"Metrano's Accidental Comedy" runs through April 30 at the Odyssey Theatre, (310) 477-2055.

Michael Connor

When Michael Connor's Irish Catholic parents took him to his first mass, the 4-year-old kicked, cried and screamed so loudly that his folks hastily removed him from the church. "I can't go here," the little boy insisted. "I'm Jewish."

To say that the Connors were surprised was an understatement; the child had never even met a Jew. But the incident foretold the future. After gravitating toward Jews and Jewish studies all his life, Connor, an actor, finally converted to Judaism in 1991.

His semi-autobiographical solo show, "Berkshire Village Idiot," recently nominated for an L.A. Weekly Award, tells the story of his teenage rebellion against Catholicism (he mortified his devout grandmother by reciting Hebrew prayers) and of his stormy relationship with his father.

The writer-performer, 38, began the piece in 1997, when his father was diagnosed with ALS and was told he had less than two years to live. "It was an attempt to go back in time to the place where our relationship broke and to reconcile it on paper," says the actor, whose piece is so arduous that he completes 2,000 sit-ups a day to stay in shape. The comedy-drama recounts how the elder Connor volunteered for a two-year military mission in Thailand, causing then-13-year-old Michael to feel abandoned and angry.

Connor read the play for his father as he lay dying and unable to speak. "He cried," recalls the actor, who attends Temple Israel of Hollywood. "He held my hand and from the eye contact, I knew that it meant a great deal to him."

"Berkshire Village Idiot," presented by the Ensemble Studio Theatre, the LA Project, at the Gascon Center Theatre in Culver City, runs through April 9. For tickets, call (323) 655-TKTS.

Some other plays around town include:

Bryna Weiss' "Lily," which traces the life of a Jewish woman from the Holocaust to the Gulf War, April 9-30 at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A. (323) 655-TKTS.

"Two Rooms," Lee Blessing's tale of a hostage in Beirut and his desperate wife in the States, through April 22 at the Sanford Meisner Center, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 509-9651. "The Sons of Lincoln," Larry Gold's play about a fictional L.A. white supremacist group's attempted media blitz, through May 14 at the Lillian Theater, 1076 N. Lillian Way in Hollywood, (310) 289-2999.

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