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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Paris Letter

I don't make everything about sex. I don't have to. Everything is about sex. ---Anton
That quote above by young Anton to young Sandy in the first act of Jon Robin Baitz's powerful play sounds like the remark of a very young man. But as Baitz tells the story of Sandy's struggle with his homosexuality over a 40-year-span, he credibly develops his premise that what you are permeates everything you do and all the lives you touch.

Baitz has been recording his world since Mizlansky/Zelinsky debuted here at Theatre/Theater for some 20 years. We saw his school days in Africa in The Film Society and reflections on art, family and Americans abroad in his many subsequent plays. In The Paris Letter these themes stem organically from the life of the central character, Sandy Sonenberg, described by Baitz as "one of Manhattan's dark and serious men" and played by Ron Rifkin with such understated conviction that one forgets he's acting.

Baitz's structural skill is at its apex, too. Both the first and the last scenes of the three-hour play pack powerful dramatic punches. After the first scene, the mature Anton, played by Lawrence Pressman, narrates Sandy's history. The play weaves back and forth in time. There's a scene in which Young Anton, an unabashed homosexual, seduces a passionate but conflicted Young Sandy in Anton's "hectic" apartment, so different from Sandy's parents Duncan Phyfe-furnished home. To Young Sandy the homosexual as opposed to heterosexual encounter is "a new kind of terrible silence."

There are excerpts from speeches given in 1973 by Dr. Moritz Schiffman (also played by Rifkin), declaiming his theories of curing homosexuality as something like aversion therapy. Young Sandy becomes his fervent patient, visiting the doctor five times a week and giving up his relationship with Anton. "It must be hard to kill part of yourself," observes Anton wryly but it's many years before he gets to say, "I told you so." Some years later Sandy falls in love with restauranteur Katie Arlen, who is also Anton's business partner and best friend. Their happy marriage includes stepson Sam, who chooses to teach in a poor neighborhood. Sam is just as much of a rebel against his financial investor father as Sandy was at his age. The difference is that Sandy, despite the advice of his mother Lillian, bent to his father's wishes and went into the family business. It may be a way of avoiding Lillian, who, he tells the doctor, "relentlessly sexualizes" the weekly dates at gay clubs she extracts from her son as payment for his psychoanalysis.

Sandy prospers financially and has the family life he yearned for. Baitz's knowledge of international business lends color to the play in such sardonic lines as, "The Japanese way of business is saying yes to everything and leaving you to figure out what the no's are."

All goes well until Sandy crosses the path of idealistic charismatic Burt Sarris, who reminds Sandy of himself when he was young and voted for Kennedy. A successful stockbroker, Burt dreams of encouraging his movie star clients to invest in philanthropies and Sandy hops on his Robin Hood bandwagon, taking along his clients. He also falls in love with Burt and has the first meaningful affair since his marriage. The breaking of this long repressed "terrible silence" seems, in the playwright's eyes, to cloud Sandy's judgement.

The disastrous event which opens the play sends Sandy, bankrupt and distraught, to Paris, abandoning his wife and son. He says he won't come back until he has repaid the money his clients lost -- an impossible task.

"You've lived your entire life in bad faith," Anton tells him when he comes over in response to Sandy's letter which gives the play its title and finds him living in a garret, still fantasizing about rebuilding and repaying. It's Anton, with his customary efficiency, who decides what to do and does it. No value judgements are offered.

The beauty of Baitz's writing lies not just in his wonderful epigrams but in the simple clarity he calls on when needed. A dying Katie says simply, "I miss my husband. I want him."

The play's one incongruity is that Anton and Young Anton don't seem to be the same person. This is partly in the writing. In the youthful seduction scene, Young Anton wants Young Sandy first to hold his hand, to connect as people. The mature Anton never demonstrates such sensitivity. And Lawrence Pressman as the older Anton uses effeminate gestures never displayed by Neil Patrick Harris as young Anton. But this is a quibble in the work of a fine cast, brilliantly directed by Michael Morris.

Patricia Wettig manages to bring charm to Sandy's overbearing mother Lillian and effortless strength to Katie Arlen. Josh Radnor is dynamic as Sam and Young Sandy. Neil Patrick Harris is charismatic as Burt and smoothly sophisticated as Young Anton. Lawrence Pressman brings weight to Anton and Rifkin's portrayal of the tormented complex Sandy is the beating heart of the show.

Michael Brown's scenic design uses furniture that comes and goes to represent various locales and Christopher Akerlind's sharp bleak lighting is almost a character in itself.

Playwright: Jon Robin Baitz
Director: Michael Morris
Cast: Neil Patrick Harris (Burt Sarris/Young Anton), Lawrence Pressman (Anton Kilgallen), Josh Radnor (Sam Arlen/Young Sandy), Ron Rifkin (Sandy Sonenberg/Dr. Moritz Schiffman), Patricia Wettig (Katie Arlen/Lillian Sonenberg).
Set Design: Michael Brown
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Costume Design: Alex Jaeger
Sound Design: Adam Phalen
Original Music: Nathan Wang
Running Time: Three hours with two intermissions
12/13/04 thrugh 1/02/05
Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Phone: (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on.December 23, 2004.

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