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 Group’s
Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City). Forgive me, though, if I can’t 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 Sandy’s money, and news of the fiscal debacle and Burt’s vapid
schemes to recover the funds vex the older man, an investment broker with Holocaust
victims for clients. “These people whose lives you’ve trashed — [they’ve
fled] pogroms and Nazis only to find that at the end of the American rainbow,
there’s 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 Burt’s suicide,
Baitz probes Sandy’s fall from grace. For a moment — a very short moment — the
play shows the promise of picking up where Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money
left off. With the authority of Paul Krugman, Baitz’s characters speak about
offshore investments and Alan Greenspan’s 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
which is set between the ’60s and 2002, concerns Sandy’s
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 husband’s turn to the straight and narrow. Not
surprisingly, despite Sandy’s nobly stated and restated love for his wife, his
true proclivities seep out. His eventual fling with Burt destroys both men,
plus Sandy’s 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 man’s sexual repression can wreak on the Upper East Side.

Oh, brother.

If Sandy had been a straight fellow who’d slept with the wrong
woman — say, a gold digger who ruined his life — it’s 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,
Baitz’s 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 Baitz’s pretensions. The Geffen Playhouse presented Richard Greenberg’s
comedy Take Me Out at the Brentwood Theater, about a cocky baseball star
who one day, nonchalant, announces he’s gay, and the public relations nightmare
that ensues. Earlier this year, Ensemble Studio Theater’s L.A. Project put on
playwright-performer L. Trey Wilson’s 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 couldn’t
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

Baitz’s problem may be his long-standing infatuation with playwright
Henrik Ibsen. (Baitz’s adaptation of Ibsen’s 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.
It’s 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 Kushner’s Roy Cohn in Angels
in America
, wrecking lives around him out of blissful malevolence fueled
by repression.

In a flashback, we see Sandy’s initial attraction to Burt stemming
from Burt’s Robin Hood economic theories — of milking the finance system to
reinvest profits in charities for the disenfranchised. Burt’s ideological benevolence
almost brings tears to Sandy’s eyes — that’s 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 he’s living in? And what century does Baitz think
he’s 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 can’t not appreciate the caliber of Baitz’s dialogue and the
elegant formality of this play’s 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 haven’t 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. It’s 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 play’s 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 world’s
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 Sandy’s 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. They’re both such Good People, a goodness that will prove to
be the play’s undoing. Wettig is lovely as Sandy’s short-suffering wife and
Young Sandy’s mother, dealing cheerfully with her son’s obvious bent.

Michael Brown’s 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
Akerlind’s tightly funneled lights, is to focus on the words. That’s 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
what’s 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.

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