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A CurtainUp Review
The Paris Letter
The central character whose forty-year personal and career history we follow in Jon Robin Baitz' Paris Letter is not unlike Ron Rifkin's previous portrayals of memory haunted and misguided businessmen, notably the publisher in Substance of Fire. This new play's basic theme -- the bitter fruit born from denying one's basic instincts -- is not without substance and the story telling is full of fire -- a suicide that literally sets things off with a bang, a major financial scandal, a tumultuous love affair. Yet, even Baitz's always strong writing, the excellent performances and Doug Hughes' admirable effort to stage The Paris Letter with the spare elegance of Doubt, can't make this rambling drama letter perfect.
If you asked someone who's seen the play to tell you what it's about, you'd probably be told that it's about a man who grew up in the conventional 1950s who denies his true sexuality. Such a summary would not be inaccurate, for Sandy Sonnenberg (Rifkin) is indeed a man who, fresh out of Princeton, has an affair with Anton Kilgallen (John Glover), a gay man who introduces him not only to sexual fulfillment but to a more artistic New York world. The time being 1962, when being openly gay was still more the exception than the rule, Sonnenberg opts for a more mainstream life style both in terms of his sexual identity and profession. Since that decision comes early on in the play, the next forty years that the story covers are geared to revealing the tragic effects of slamming the door on one's natural impulses.
Baitz is an intelligent and complex writer. While he tells the story of Sandy's downfall and its ripple effect on his friends, wife and those who relied on his professional trustworthiness through the lens of the by now somewhat dated in/out of the closet dilemma, there are much broader implications at work. Sandy's real tragedy is that he's a chronically joyless man -- someone unable to give himself over completely to even his most exhilarating experiences. Thus the youthful affair with Anton is clouded from the start by guilt and the inability to fully throw himself into the relationship -- and to take that a step further to also free himself from the sense of obligation to enter the family investment business. His choice to end the affair with the free spirited Anton becomes an obvious first step towards total assimilation which in this case means joining the family enterprise. That assimilation brings wealth and power but, unsurprisingly, the fateful first decision establishes a pattern of causing pain to himself and to others.
The narrator who takes us through the forty years of this modern Greek tragedy in the making is none other than Anton, that all-important first love of Sandy's life who remains in his life as his friend. As Anton segues from narrating to active participation, the story jumps back and forth without following a straightforward 1962 to 2002 timeline. From a slam-bang beginning of the end scene, it's back to the beginning and the love that dared not go any further to the events leading to the eventual collision between Sandy's chosen life style and its accompanying embrace of the greed is good mantra and his repressed sexual needs.
While Rifkin plays Sandy with his usual affinity for Baitz's tormented businessmen, Glover is positively spectacular as full of flair and feeling Anton. That's not to say that Glover's star turn makes the other performers contributions less valuable. All (except Glover) play double roles which adds several rich notes of irony -- especially Rifkin's playing the Viennese psychologist who persuades young Sandy (Daniel Eric Gold who looks convincingly as Rifkin might have at twenty) that five days a week on his couch will " cure" his homosexuality. Michelle Pawk gets to play both young Sandy's indulgent mom in one of the play's two best scenes (both take place in restaurants) and the older Sandy's wife Katie. Gold reappears as Katie's son from an earlier marriage who has none of his stepfather's 1962 hang-ups about being openly gay. Jason Butler Harner plays Anton's younger alter ego as well as the stockbroker with whom Sandy becomes smitten, with disastrous results for everyone.
With Mr. Hughes trimming the production from its original 3-hour version, obviously not all these characters are equally nuanced and fully developed. While John Lee Beatty's spare set with its one especially striking item, a dark circular stair case, and Peter Karzorowski's cinematic lighting suit this leaner production, the play itself often seems to be missing pieces. Most disappointingly, Mr. Baitz's penchant for melodrama which effectively gets The Paris Letter off to an attention arousing, drop dead opening, finally seduces him into tossing too many implausible, overheated developments at us. The final melodramatic twist, which I won't disclose here , unfortunately robs this frustratingly at once good and not so good play of its potential to be a genuinely moving love story.
LINKS TO OTHER BAITZ PLAYS REVIEWED BY US
End of the Day
Mizlansky/Zelinsky or "Schmucks"/Baitz, Jon Robin
The Film Society
Hedda Gabler/Ibsen--Baitz adaptation
Ten Unknowns -- LA
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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