(Guest Reviewer: Martin A. David)
("The Paris Letter" plays at New Conservatory Theatre Center from January 17 through February 23, 2014.)
Jon Robin Baitz is a playwright of some distinction, having been produced on Broadway more than once and been nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Play early in his career (for "The Film Society", which starred Nathan Lane). "The Paris Letter" dates from 2004 and received a New York production in 2005, starring Ron Rifkin and John Glover. The current production at New Conservatory Theatre is its Bay area premiere.
Baitz is obvously a craftsperson when it comes to playwrighting. However, "The Paris Letter" needs a little more sandpapering and a little more glue. The playwright creates smoothly flowing dialogue, and plot lines that tremble with dramatic conflict and tension. Unfortunately, he puts these fine elements into a collection of loose and choppy scenes that never fully coalesce into the masterful play the components deserve.
The most valuable component of all in the New Conservatory’s production is the ensemble of actors. It is the cast that holds Baitz’s construction together—often in spite of itself. They share the character’s lives with us with an honesty that keeps the story alive and keeps us caring.
Tom Reilly in the role of Anton—both a Brechtian narrator and a major catalyst character—is particularly noteworthy. He takes us into his confidence and tells us the story with strength and dignity. His ability to step from character to storyteller is impressive. Without him, the play might easily have lost its meaning.
The play takes us on a disjointed journey through the life of Sanford “Sandy” Sonenberg, the scion of a wealthy financier. Sandy, a Princeton grad, is what would be recognized today—with very little fanfare and raising of eyebrows—as a bisexual. Today, the story would be over in minutes and everyone would live happily ever after. In the play’s setting—a 40 year span from the early 60s to the early 2000s—coming out was dangerous, daring, socially unacceptable, and downright uncomfortable. Discomfort seems to be what Sandy wishes most to avoid. Playwright Baitz has peopled his play with other characters who don’t seem to give a damn about Sandy’s excursions into what used to be called “the dark side.” His mother gives a wink and a nod to Sandy’s all-too-obvious attraction to Anton, and his wife states clearly that she knows and doesn’t really mind. Both of those ladies are played with great skill by Michaela Greeley.
The young Sandy, played a little too earnestly by Paul Collins, panics over how much he enjoys rolling in the sack with the young Anton, played with cool sophistication by David Ewing. The panic drives him to the office of Doctor Schiffman, a practitioner of the destructive and discredited “art” of gay conversion therapy. Ron Dritz, as the good doctor, almost makes sense out of the gay conversion nonsense. Schiffman convinces Sandy that his sexual attraction to people of his own gender is an ailment that can be cured. The audience, looking through the lens of today’s world, knows that ain’t never gonna happen.
Sandy’s venture into heterosexual land produces a son, Sam, played skillfully by Collins. Sam is hip and knowing. His presence could serve as a bridge between his father’s two worlds, but the playwright seems to have created him as a trivial afterthought. It would have been great to know what Sam thought of his gay/straight/gay father.
It is the ongoing conflict between feeling good vs looking good that fuels the play. Ron Dritz, as Sandy the adult, and as Doctor Schiffman, the misguided psychiatrist, works hard to show us both sides of the conflict, but frequently misses the mark. Sandy grew up in New York, but his accent occasionally visits Maine and Massachusetts. His Sandy is an excellent surface portrait, but the dramatic situation requires a more colorful palette of nuances than he provides.
We know from the get go that Sandy’s success will end in Sandy’s downfall. Early on, a character informs us to be wary of, “the danger of too much good fortune.” Sandy’s tragic downfall, wrapped in the spider webs of his own sexual ambivalence, is also tangled with the greed and theft driven financial meltdown of our own time. Sandy’s new, young lover, Burt, does some self-enriching sleight of hand that brings the enormous financial empire crashing down. The good fortune line is the modern equivalent of the classical theme, “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” Sandy’s flight from both financial ruin and the all too enjoyable monsters in his closet is not madness, but it is damned close.
Many of the play’s confrontations—a suicide, a deadly farewell—take place behind a large circular scrim, as if they were dream sequences. The device works and fails with a score that is approximately even. In general, the scenery, by Devin Kasper, is the least effective element of the production. It is cluttered and stylistically unfathomable. A huge circle meets lush red drapes with additional cloth accents draped over them. Square and rectangular frames challenge the circle—and lose. It almost seems that the play is being performed on a set left over from some other production.
Christian Mejia’s lighting sometimes seems to be almost an additional character. When Reilly’s Anton steps from involved character to all-knowing narrator, subtle changes in the lighting help make that transition seamless.
Director George Maguire keeps the action flowing gracefully for the most part. One of his choices, a conversation in which each character who speaks—around a table in a restaurant—stands up and then sits down, feels like an uncomfortable and unnecessary gimmick. Of course, very few directors, regardless of skill, could overcome the sandpaper dry patch in the middle of the playwright’s second act. The needless repetitions and stultifying drop in rhythm would have even the most polite of theatre goers glancing surreptitiously at a wrist watch.
In spite of flaws, the play and the production are very worth a visit. The themes of bisexuality, the comfort of closets, and the battle between love embraced and love deferred, are powerful and thought-provoking.
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"The Paris Letter" by Jon Robin Baitz, produced by the New Conservatory Theatre. Director: George Maguire. Set Design: Devin Kasper. Sound Design: Billie Cox. Lighting/Projection Design: Christian Mejia. Properties: Rebecca Madsen. Costume Design: Miram Lewis.
Sam/Young Sandy: Paul Collins. Sandy and Dr. Schiffman: Ron Dritz. Brut and Young Anton: David Ewsing. Katie and Lillian: MIchaela Greely. Anton: Tom Reilly.
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