Review: ‘The Paris Letter’

Jon Robin Baitz's latest play is head and shoulders above most current dramatic offerings. Two-thirds masterpiece, "The Paris Letter" supplies such a stirring dramatic experience that its lapses in the final section don't seriously dilute the production's power.

Jon Robin Baitz’s latest play is head and shoulders above most current dramatic offerings. Two-thirds masterpiece, “The Paris Letter” supplies such a stirring dramatic experience that its lapses in the final section don’t seriously dilute the production’s power. If these flaws, which include shapeless continuity and lurching dramatic leaps, are corrected, “The Paris Letter” has potential to rank beside works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

This world-premiere production starts shockingly, when Sandy (Ron Rifkin), an investment counselor, bitterly berates his youthful business partner/lover Burt (Neil Patrick Harris) for cheating their clients, and Burt kills himself. This suicide — staged with graphic, blood-splashing intensity by director Michael Morris — leads to flashbacks that point up Sandy’s desperate attempts to deny and repress his homosexuality, and the agony it causes to those he cares most deeply about.

One victim of these self-defeating efforts is wife Katie (Patricia Wettig), who marries him with full knowledge of his former gay life. Their romance is sensitively drawn, and Wettig’s delicacy and depth make it understandable that Sandy would consider Katie a safe heterosexual harbor.

What gives the story its primary force, however, is Sandy’s relationship with restaurateur Anton. The two men are alternately shown, between 1962 and 2002, as 21-year-olds and then in old age. Young Sandy is played by Josh Radnor with a mesmerizing mixture of sexual yearning and terror. We feel his trembling nervousness when young Anton (Harris) says, “I want to kiss you,” and his later anguish when protesting, “I’m not a homosexual.”

The gifted Harris, in a tour-de-force portrayal, provides charismatic contrast as a gay man completely happy and comfortable in his own skin — an ideal role model for insecure Sandy if only he could see it.

Instead, Sandy turns to pretentious Dr. Schiffman (Rifkin), specialist in “curing” homosexuals and steering them straight. Promising Sandy he can be helped “spectacularly,” Schiffman places him on a program that includes masturbating to pictures of women, and organizes the quest that demands damaging suppression of his true nature. Rifkin’s portrayal of the deluded doctor is convincingly different from his interpretation of elder Sandy, and his monologues are a ghoulish blend of humor and arrogance.

Baitz writes vibrant, stingingly literate dialogue, and Rifkin, employing a German accent, puts a unique spin on every word.

Although Lawrence Pressman doesn’t quite seem a logical mature outgrowth of Harris’ younger Anton, he brings high style and savoir faire to the role of a man who silently continues to love Sandy over a 40-year period and sympathetically watches him wage an unwinnable battle.

Pressman never overdoes his part, both narrating and observing his friend’s life with wry, resigned concern.

Wettig, gracefully sane as Sandy’s wife, reveals her range in a dynamically directed scene as the young Sandy’s possessive mother. Tight-jawed, with red hair, in a glittering gold dress, she obviously revels in dining out with her son and, although she extends financial and emotional support, it’s clear Sandy is right in accusing his mother of “relentlessly sexualizing our relationship.”

The show’s problems begin when Sandy leaves his wife and focuses on restoring lost fortunes to the clients Burt has swindled. It’s almost as though playwright Baitz is aware of the abrupt transitions when Pressman tells us, “Forgive me for jumping over so much, so quickly.”

For the first time, we become aware of plot engineering after Katie suddenly develops cancer, a hasty and misplaced encounter between Sandy and Burt slows down the action, and Katie’s offstage fate fails to deliver the needed pathos.

The put-him-out-of-his-misery climax, though vividly acted, also lacks emotional punch. There’s a sense of discomfort after Sandy is vilified as a monster who deserves punishment, rather than treated as a tragically comprehensible human being who tries to cope with identity conflicts. The denouement echoes old Lillian Hellman days when gays were fatally penalized for their feelings.

Good taste is evident in Michael Brown’s minimalistic set pieces — golden monkeys from Anton’s Le Singe d’Or restaurant, an Eames chair, Parsons tables and simple black furniture — and Alex Jaeger’s muted costumes accurately reflect East Coast class and sophistication.

The show’s sexual content is frankly presented, and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting brings visual clarity to the nude scene between Harris and Radnor, highlighting just enough detail without sensationalizing the episode.

The Paris Letter

Kirk Douglas Theater; 320 seats; $40 top

Production

A Center Theater Group/Kirk Douglas Theater presentation of a play in three acts by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Michael Morris. Sets, Michael Brown; costumes, Alex Jaeger; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Adam Phalen; original music, Nathan Wang; production stage manager, Lisa J. Snodgrass. Opened and reviewed Dec. 12, 2004; runs through Jan. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Burt Sarris, Young Anton - Neil Patrick Harris Anton Kilgallen - Lawrence Pressman Sam Arlen, Young Sandy - Josh Radnor Sandy Sonenberg, Dr. Moritz Schiffman - Ron Rifkin Katie Arlen, Lillian Sonenberg - Patricia Wettig

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