A Little Gem in NoHo: “The Paris Letter” @ Lonny Chapman Group Rep

August 20, 2012

Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Paris Letter” is one of the most thoughtful, as well as one of the most moving, works from this distinguished American playwright (he created “Brothers and Sisters,” and was a Pulitzer nominee for his “Other Desert Cities” which is coming to town late this fall). “Paris Letter,” which copped the LA Drama Critics Circle Ted Schmitt Award for an original LA premiere in 2006, is often performed but often performed badly, so I was thrilled to see it executed so well by the Group Rep in their little storefront on Burbank Boulevard.

Why is it so difficult? A bit of synopsis first. Baitz is concerned with two generations of Manhattan artistic types and hangers-on. In the 1960s, a young Jewish Princeton grad named Sandy Sonnenberg falls into the orbit of a former Hollywood costume designer (and US Army discharge) turned restauranteur, Anton Kilgallen. Their brief affair changes to lifelong friendship when Sandy’s guilt impels him to seek psychiatric help to kick his homosexual inclinations. Fast forward to the present day, where Sandy is now a prestigious fund manager married to Anton’s former café partner, Katie. Sandy falls into the orbit of a younger, much more reckless fund manager named Burt Sarris, whose financial shenanigans turn Sandy into an early sketch for Bernie Madoff as he loses all of his clients’ life savings. One more source of guilt for the hapless Sonnenberg prince, now a fumbling King Lear.

Get the idea? Even if it weren’t so fricken complicated (all of that was pretty much just the back story), you also have to factor in the doubling. One actor plays young Anton and Burt; another older Sandy and his younger self’s psychiatrist; yet another actor portrays young Sandy and his own son. (Oy gevalt! – which is one Yiddish expression NOT uttered in the play.) And finally, there are many themes at work here: pre-Stonewall homosexual life; the friendship of ex-lovers; the bond between straight women and gay men; America’s financial underpinnings; the relationship of the past to the present….Plays have been written about each of these themes alone. This is one complex script.

And yet under Jules Aaron’s direction, it plays like buttah. The pacing is impeccable, the acting incisive and subtle. As Anton, young Alex Parker doesn’t look like he would grow into Lloyd Petersen, but their manners and gestures are very much in line with each other, and that’s what’s important. Anton is a remarkably rich character who gains honor by the two who play him. At the same time, Parker and Dan Sykes (young Sandy) are extremely smart thesps who can handle multiple layers of emotionality at once, not to mention an extended and potentially embarrassing nude scene.

I was totally touched by Julia Silverman’s dual turns as loyal Katie and Sandy’s dotty mom, whereas Larry Eisenberg was somehow able to turn older Sandy into a genuinely tragic figure. (Not to mention pulling in a great cameo as his younger self’s European shrink, committed to changing the lad to a straight lifestyle). Throw in a clever set involving sliding panels which allow for a remarkably elegant physical recreation of Manhattan at its most captivating, and you’ve got a wonderful two hours in the theater.

What else can I say? See it. It closes Sept. 2.

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