Photo by Craig Schwartz
Jon Robin Baitz may be a wonderful, erudite writer, with a new play closing this week at an important new venue (Center Theater Groups Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City). Forgive me, though, if I cant take that play, The Paris Letter, seriously.
His mystery opens very dramatically. A desperate young man in underwear, Burt (Neil Patrick Harris), begs and kisses and begs again his older lover, Sandy Sonenberg (Ron Rifkin), not to abandon him. Burt has evidently lost a lot of Sandys money, and news of the fiscal debacle and Burts vapid schemes to recover the funds vex the older man, an investment broker with Holocaust victims for clients. "These people whose lives youve trashed [theyve fled] pogroms and Nazis only to find that at the end of the American rainbow, theres you," Sandy chides his forlorn apprentice, as though the investment accounts of Holocaust victims are somehow worth more than the investment accounts of anyone else. Burt then promptly blows his brains out, spraying blood all over a silvery screen behind him a striking end to Scene 1.
In three acts, by investigating the mystery of Burts suicide, Baitz probes Sandys fall from grace. For a moment a very short moment the play shows the promise of picking up where Caryl Churchills Serious Money left off. With the authority of Paul Krugman, Baitzs characters speak about offshore investments and Alan Greenspans pronouncements. Any play about the misery and hope of the 21st century is going to be about international finance, the force with which that misery and hope begins and ends. There is arguably no more immediate theme for a dramatist to embrace. Baitz teases us with dialogue about a macro trader in Boston and of "Japanese distressed securities" and then delivers something much more trite: The nitty-gritty of The Paris Letter, which is set between the 60s and 2002, concerns Sandys closeted homosexuality, and an attempted "cure" for his condition by a renowned Freudian shrink, Dr. Moritz Schiffman, also played by the remarkable Rifkin. Sandy is so confident in the result, he marries a woman (Patricia Wettig), who is equally confident in her husbands turn to the straight and narrow. Not surprisingly, despite Sandys nobly stated and restated love for his wife, his true proclivities seep out. His eventual fling with Burt destroys both men, plus Sandys marriage, plus the investments accounts of those Holocaust victims. All because he cheated on his wife and slept with the wrong boy.
Moral of the story: Tear down those closets. See what destruction one mans sexual repression can wreak on the Upper East Side.
If Sandy had been a straight fellow whod slept with the wrong woman say, a gold digger who ruined his life its doubtful anyone would confuse this play with a tragedy, despite the corpses littering the stage in Act 3. This is not Fatal Attraction where the muse turns vengeful; instead, Baitzs characters are all so burdened with conscience, the play belongs to another century.
Two plays appeared locally this year that grappled quite beautifully with sexual repression their effectiveness largely deriving from their lack of Baitzs pretensions. The Geffen Playhouse presented Richard Greenbergs comedy Take Me Out at the Brentwood Theater, about a cocky baseball star who one day, nonchalant, announces hes gay, and the public relations nightmare that ensues. Earlier this year, Ensemble Studio Theaters L.A. Project put on playwright-performer L. Trey Wilsons Stage Directions at [Inside] the Ford. This play was set entirely in a rehearsal hall as two male actors one gay, one straight were required to kiss. The straight actor simply couldnt handle it, so the straight director staged the scene to hide the kiss. After the gay actor and gay playwright went ballistic over how the "truth" had been cheated by the straight men, a war of identities and ideologies unfolded brilliantly.
Baitzs problem may be his long-standing infatuation with playwright Henrik Ibsen. (Baitzs adaptation of Ibsens Hedda Gabler was performed at the Geffen Playhouse in 1999.) Ibsen wrote in the 19th century about the dire consequences of malaise and ethical cowardice in a world fraught with uncertainty. Its as though in The Paris Letter Baitz has constructed an Olympic-size pool suited for such big themes, and in it he floats his rather small sexual idea like a rubber duck. Baitz then turns red in the face trying to inflate it, to manifest some sense of proportion and magnitude.
We can also probably blame Ibsen that Sandy is so damnably tortured and torn instead of diabolically closeted, like Tony Kushners Roy Cohn in Angels in America, wrecking lives around him out of blissful malevolence fueled by repression.
In a flashback, we see Sandys initial attraction to Burt stemming from Burts Robin Hood economic theories of milking the finance system to reinvest profits in charities for the disenfranchised. Burts ideological benevolence almost brings tears to Sandys eyes thats how much of a nice guy Sandy is, until he abandons his family for Paris, entering an emotional hermitage. But what century does he think hes living in? And what century does Baitz think hes writing about? This is the age of Ken Lay, of Enron execs who fleece friends and neighbors and mock grandmas stuck with exorbitant energy bills. We live in a world run by the descendants of Southern lynch mobs, not soul seekers and noble financiers obsessed with the plight of the poor.
One cant not appreciate the caliber of Baitzs dialogue and the elegant formality of this plays structure. Act 1 is set in the present, more or less, where characters converse around dining-room and restaurant tables sipping wine. Act 2 tracks the theories of Dr. Schiffman, and his efforts to straighten out Sandy in the 60s, where characters converse at podiums or around dining-room and restaurant tables sipping bourbon. Act 3 returns to the present, and to the wine. You can pretty much tell where you are in this play by what people are drinking.
I havent heard so much dialogue about food since Donald Margulies play Dinner With Friends, in which the characters actually prepared the food, so their expertise was enmeshed in their activities. In The Paris Letter, the characters culinary expertise is enmeshed in their attitude, which is quite a different brand of authority. Its also notable how similar The Paris Letter is to Dinner With Friends, both being about the fallout from an infidelity. Margulies, however, understood the scale of that infidelity in proportion to other events of the century.
Doubling as both Sandy and Dr. Schiffman, Ron Rifkin is so charismatic and spontaneous, with a kind of muted insanity, he masks many of the plays shortcomings. Lawrence Pressman plays his ex-lover, Anton, a fallen angel of sorts who used to run an NYC fashion mag "for a moment" and is now maitre d at a Broadway restaurant. Anton also serves as narrator, a duty Pressman fulfills with an appealingly blithe accommodation to the worlds petty tortures, punctuated with little flips of the wrist and small squeals.
When Rifkin morphs into Dr. Schiffman in the Act 2 flashback, Josh Radnor arrives as Young Sandy having doubled as Sandys stepson in the present-tense Act 1. Meanwhile, Neil Patrick Harris, having left his portrayal of Burt in a pool of blood, re-enters as Young Anton. And we watch the young couple dance around each other like butterflies holding shots of bourbon for encouragement. Theyre both such Good People, a goodness that will prove to be the plays undoing. Wettig is lovely as Sandys short-suffering wife and Young Sandys mother, dealing cheerfully with her sons obvious bent.
Michael Browns arresting Mondrian-like minimalist set design has screens fly in and out, at times revealing peepholes into the backstage broader perspectives, perhaps? The point of all the design, including Christopher Akerlinds tightly funneled lights, is to focus on the words. Thats a sound approach in a play largely about language. Director Michael Morris shows such a keen sensitivity to character and cadence, I thought for a moment I was watching CSI: Fire Island.
For Baitz to be taken more seriously, perhaps at this point in his illustrious, tormented playwriting career, he needs to take himself less seriously knowing the difference between an identity crisis and a tragedy, for instance. Very good plays can come from very small incidents, but knowing whats big and small is part of the job requirement for an artist. As a great philosopher-muse once noted, sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.
THE PARIS LETTER | By JOHN ROBIN BAITZ | Presented by CENTER THEATER GROUP AT THE KIRK DOUGLAS THEATER, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Through January 2 | (213) 628-2772