Two gay New York men whose lives are lived in different yet equally arid states of self-denial are at the center of Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Paris Letter,” which has been staged by “Doubt” director Doug Hughes with his customary crisp economy in a stylishly designed Roundabout production. A half-hour and one intermission shorter than in its three-act Center Theater premiere in Los Angeles in December, the play is graced by elegant writing and sensitive observation of the compromises that inhibit the pursuit of love and happiness. But the sprawling, complex work takes too long to reveal itself and, while always absorbing, it feels frustratingly unfocused and emotionally remote.
Shuffling chronologically between the early ’60s and 2002, the play opens midargument as well-heeled investment banker Sandy Sonnenberg (Ron Rifkin) chews out his handsome young business partner Burt (Jason Butler Harner) for having illegitimately milked millions from their elite clients. Before leaving, Sandy coldly suggests the only suitable atonement for Burt is suicide, to which he promptly responds by blowing out his brains over the back wall.
From that shocking beginning, the flamboyantly urbane Anton Kilgallen (John Glover) enters to assume narrator duties, filling in the blanks that led indirectly to the incident and to a letter Sandy sent from Paris, a year after vanishing under the cloud of financial scandal and personal devastation. Anton’s assets also were wiped out in the process.
“Everything is about sex,” observes Anton dryly, and so it is in Baitz’s play. The narrative core, arrived at via a naggingly unhurried, circuitous route, is the self-imposed repression of Sandy’s homosexuality, which he has diligently smothered with five sessions a week of guidance from sinister shrink Dr. Schiffman (Rifkin again, in one of the play’s intriguing double-casting gambits).
Despite maintaining a happy marriage with Katie (Michelle Pawk), whom he loves, and being a good father to her son from a previous marriage, Sam (Daniel Eric Gold), Sandy has sacrificed personal fulfillment in favor of money and carefully constructed respectability. As a young man fresh out of Princeton (also played by Gold), his account to Schiffman of a summer camp encounter with an older boy is so emotionally and erotically transporting that no doubt is left as to Sandy’s true sexuality. Far more painful, however, is his denial of an opportunity for love, when he truncates a passionate relationship with the young Anton (Harner).
A colorful storyteller somewhat burdened by Baitz’s fondness for peripheral detail, Anton weaves his way through his own background as a sophisticate and restaurateur in hip ’60s New York, as friend and business associate to Katie, and as Sandy’s closest friend, despite being irked by the banker’s periodic crushes on pretty younger men. It becomes clear, too, that Anton’s openly gay lifestyle and stream of sexual flings without emotional attachment have been no more fulfilling for him than Sandy’s dishonest life; the repression of Anton’s lingering love for him was no less “cauterizing” than Sandy’s closet confinement.
The emotional stakes of Anton and Sandy’s brief relationship in 1962 give these scenes more urgency and heart than the exploration of Sandy’s marriage; the melodrama of Katie’s decline with cancer; a postflight quest of Sandy to tap frozen assets and repay his clients; or the dramatic final-act solution carried out by Anton in Paris, a denouement that comes out of nowhere.
Perhaps because the play is so overplotted, the characters are never quite vivid or real enough, their conflicts elaborated behind the same veil under which Sandy has lived his life. The action drifts from one period to another in fluid enough though somewhat disorganized fashion, held together primarily by the lively eloquence of Baitz’s dialogue.
Also functioning as glue in the unwieldy mix is Glover, whose alert, angular features, his lean gracefulness and wry aplomb make him an especially alive, witty presence and a natural for this role, a devotee of “food and laughing and fucking and romance.”
But despite Rifkin’s evident connection to the playwright (this is the fourth Baitz role originated by him and he’s the only L.A. cast member still onboard), and despite the actor’s compelling perf, there’s something missing from the characterization. Sandy remains an opaque figure, detached, uncharming and unsympathetic; the guilt and shame that have trapped this savvy man into denying himself and inadvertently hurting the people he loves feel oddly insubstantial.
Pawk’s ease and warmth make her a pleasure to watch, both as quietly understanding Katie, fully aware of her husband’s sexual leanings, and as Sandy’s mother, a Jewish matron who revels amusingly in the thrill of her son’s bohemian New York world. The double-casting works effectively in all cases. Playing incomplete characters, Gold and Harner both are sparky and appealing in the ’60s scenes.
One of Hughes’ primary skills as a director is the unfussy purposefulness of his staging, which has a welcome sobering effect here on the play’s elaborate construction and perhaps overreaching scope. Peter Kaczorowski’s subtle lighting and John Lee Beatty’s sleek designs also add considerably, deftly transforming the stark black-and-gunmetal-gray base set into a variety of locations via clever wall panels and smartly chosen, minimal furnishings.
But ultimately, for all of its arresting moments and knowing worldliness, the play’s themes, like the sad figures whose frustrated lives populate Baitz’s drama, feel airy and elusive.