Three Playwrights Say Hello (Again) to Broadway

Jon Robin Baitz, David Henry Hwang and David Ives are anything but newbies. But their latest projects have them experiencing Broadway in a new way.

Jon Robin Baitz
Jon Robin Baitz (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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"It's better this way than the other way," Jon Robin Baitz says. "Than if I had started out in my 20s with Broadway success. I like this trajectory. This play opens on the eve of my 50th birthday. The timing is good. It feels earned."

Baitz is talking about Other Desert Cities, his first Broadway play. (His only other Broadway credit is for his adaptation of Hedda Gabler in 2001.) Cities was a sold-out hit Off-Broadway last season at Lincoln Center, and opens at the Booth Theatre on Nov. 3. Baitz is one of several playwrights, including David Henry Hwang and David Ives, whose careers have largely happened away from the Great White Way but who are on Broadway this fall.

Baitz has been writing Off-Broadway since 1988's The Film Society, followed by, among others, The Substance of Fire, The Paris Letter and A Fair Country. He was also the creator and an executive producer of TV's "Brothers & Sisters."

"I'm prouder of Other Desert Cities than of anything else," he says, "because I think I finally managed to put all the pieces together. Not that I understand fully what constitutes a Broadway play and what doesn't — that to me is still somewhat mysterious." The play, about a rich, politically conservative family and the secrets of its past, stars Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Rachel Griffiths, Judith Light and Thomas Sadoski and is directed by Joe Mantello. "It deals with the impossibility of knowing everything about the way in which secrets operate in a family. And it's also another play — about two different kinds of America. About what kind of people we are, what kind of country we are, what our history means" and about "the American dream and how that dream has changed."

Baitz says it's "beautiful" working with Mantello, who was his romantic partner for more than a decade and is a frequent collaborator. "We have a great shorthand. I think somehow his love and commitment to me, on some level, was deeply palpable."

David Henry Hwang
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

David Henry Hwang, whose new play, Chinglish, is his first on Broadway in 13 years, says that for him it's the play that counts, not the destination: "I feel that the work is pretty much the same, trying to create a play. Every now and then, if you're lucky, producers decide this might find a big audience, and you get on Broadway."

Hwang has achieved artistic success on Broadway, especially with his Tony-winning M. Butterfly in 1988 and the Tony-nominated Golden Child in 1998. A two-time Pulitzer finalist, he wrote a revised libretto for the Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song and co-wrote the libretto for Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida. He has written operas and worked in film and television.

Chinglish, now at the Longacre, is a comedy about an American businessman visiting China to make a deal, and the female Chinese vice minister he meets. Performed in English and Mandarin (with surtitles), it deals, he says, with "the difficulties of communication, in terms of language and the way different cultures look at the world.

"On the simplest level, there are the language difficulties. The American says, 'We are a small, family-run firm.' The translator says, 'His company is small and insignificant.'"

Everyone in the play "is trying hard to communicate. Yet there are things we consider universal values, ways of looking at the world, which aren't necessarily the case, which can change culturally. In our culture you're supposed to find someone you love and stay in love, and that's not necessarily true in other cultures. Some people think marriage is not about love — maybe you love somebody in the beginning, but it changes, and love is more about partnership."

David Ives
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

David Ives isn't really making his Broadway debut. He adapted Mark Twain's Is He Dead? for Broadway and co-wrote the books for the musicals Dance of the Vampires and Irving Berlin's White Christmas. (He has also adapted librettos for City Center's Encores! series and has been produced frequently Off-Broadway.)

But his erotic comedy Venus in Fur — a success Off-Broadway last year at Classic Stage — is his first Broadway play. It will open Nov. 8 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

"Broadway is fun," Ives says. "Theatre is theatre, but Broadway is theatre writ large. I've spent many years Off- and Off-Off- and Off-Off-Off-, but it's nice to be on a big stage and have a large marquee. Though the challenge is always the same — make it good."

The two-actor work follows an actress auditioning for a play based on the 19th-century novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It stars Nina Arianda, who wowed audiences in the Off-Broadway version and earned a Tony nomination for her role in last season's revival of Born Yesterday. Her co-star is Hugh Dancy, who made his own splash for his Broadway debut in the 2007 revival of Journey's End.

"It's what you might call a backstage comedy-drama about a playwright desperately in need of an actress, and an actress even more desperately in need of a job," Ives says. "The play the playwright-director is auditioning for just happens to be based on a rather notoriously erotic novel from 1870. As the after-hours audition goes on, as they work on scenes, the line between the play and the two of them starts to erase. It's about theatre. It's about love. It's about sex. And power."

Has Ives made any changes since Off-Broadway? "No. I haven't touched the play. I've been eager to hear it again. Sitting in auditions for the male lead, I was amazed about some things I heard. I'd forgotten I'd written them. Some were pretty good."