The Paris Letter/by Jon Robin Baitz/directed by Jules Aaron/Group rep/through September 2
It's a pleasure to see an intelligently written play about sexual identity, one that shows how homosexuality has been affected by the American cultural climate over a 40 year period. But, when the piece goes beyond basic issues and delves deeply into raw human emotions, it comes up all the richer. In fact, Jon Robin Baitz' The Paris Letter with its breathtaking scope and poetic literary style may very well be categorized a new classic, and the current production is rendered so beautifully by a stellar cast and crew at Group rep through September 2.
When the play begins in 2001, investment banker Sandy Sonnenberg (Larry Eisenberg), now a married man, has a casual affair with a client Burt Sarris (Alex Parker), who, he is soon to learn, has misappropriated millions of dollars of the funds entrusted to him. Sonnenberg will be disgraced, his career over, and after he suggests to Sarris that it would be better that he kill himself, so be it. Burt puts a gun into his mouth and blows his brains out. From this point onward, Anton Kilgallen (Lloyd Pedersen) narrates the play, taking us back a few years to see where the relationship with Sarris and Sonnenberg began and then back even further to 1963 when he, a much younger Anton (played also by Alex Parker) and a younger Sandy (Dan Sykes) had been entangled in a long lasting, clandestine affair. Anton, a magazine writer and restauranteur with flair, has always been open and free about his homosexuality; Sandy, on the other hand, uptight and repressed, seeking therapy as a possible 'cure' for his malady. Sandy eventually leaves Anton, although they remain lifelong friends, and marries Katie Arlen (Julia Silverman), a chef and partner of Anton, to Anton's chagrin.
Through the 40 year period, Anton has never stopped loving Sandy, whereas Sandy has buried intense feelings for Anton. Apart from this triangle of Sandy/Anton/Katie, there's also Sandy's doting, but plastic mother Lillian (also played by Silverman), who will dish out jewelry for her son's therapy rather than help him confront his insecurity, the expensive psychiatrist Dr. Schiffman (also played by Eisenberg), who claims he "will continue to take the money, but never abandon him". Baitz clearly utilizes the power of money to prove that in spite of its abundance, it will never bring true happiness. Just look at Sandy who is consistently miserable, because he has lived his life in bad faith. One more character: Katie had a son Sam (also played by Sykes) from a previous marriage, who is gay, but somehow the relationship between Sam and Sandy is never deeply explored, leaving one to wonder how Sandy, a Jewish man, seems to condone Sam's homosexuality, but cannot accept it within himself.
The marvelous set design by Chris Winfield consists of panels that move back and forth to display various locales in the memory, such as Anton's flashy apartment, the psychiatrist's elegantly sterile office, and so forth. There is a sole table downstage center where one actor will sit to smoke, or put on clothes. The entire set takes on a character all its own, as space accompanies time bouncing back and forth between the 60s, 70s, 80s and onward into the new millenium.
Under Jules Aaron's meticulously concise direction, the entire ensemble give sensational performances. Eisenberg consistently plays against the grain, finding shades of lucidity within his tortured state as Sandy, as Pedersen brilliantly evokes Anton's pomposity without ever diminishing honesty, clear focus and positive self-worth. Silverman makes Katie's pain palpable and skillfully turns 360 degrees to evoke Lillian's overbearing phoniness. Sykes is amazingly endearing as the young Sandy. Like Eisenberg, he brings humanity to a soul in despair. Parker is charming, flamboyant and ever so sharp as the young Anton. Paul Cady, in his brief appearances as the waiter, gives middle-age sexiness a whole new appeal.
The Paris Letter is a tour-de-force for playwright Baitz, offering a bold, scintillating look at homosexuality, power and money. For Group rep, who give it everything they've got and more, it is a true labor of love. Don't miss it!
There is full frontal nudity, so leave the little ones at home!
For more, visit www.thegrouprep.com.