The Paris Letter
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 18, 2005
Jon Robin Baitz's new play, The Paris Letter, is about a man named Sandy (short for Sanford) Sonnenberg, the last in the line of a family of Jewish financiers whose refusal to confront his own sexuality in an honest way results in tragedy for himself and everybody around him. Sandy is aware of his proclivity (he would hardly call it an orientation or even a preference) at a fairly tender age; in his final year of college he takes to frequenting a Bohemian/artsy (read "homosexual") restaurant owned by the effete artist-turned-entrepreneur Anton Kilgallen, and after only a few visits he winds up in Anton's bed, and then Anton's lover for three months in the winter of 1962-63.
But Sandy is deeply ashamed of what he sees as behavior that's both immoral and enormously inconvenient. So he seeks the help of notorious/renowned psychiatrist Dr. Moritz Schiffman, who specializes in reassigning gay men to a "normal" heterosexual lifestyle. Schiffman counsels Sandy to end his affair with Anton immediately, which he does.
Nearly 40 years later, Sandy—now married, for two decades, to Katie Arlen, the wildly successful owner/chef of a trendy NYC bistro and a dear friend and former employee of Anton's—becomes involved with a young gay Wall Street wizard named Burt Sarris. The nature of this involvement is not disclosed all at once, and should not be presumed to be sexual; its initial and most important aspect is rooted in business, for Sandy has decided to retire and has chosen Burt to be his successor, transferring his clients over to the younger man. But Burt gets in over his head and loses all of the clients' money—to the tune of 100 million dollars. Sandy tells Burt (in the very first of the play; the bulk of The Paris Letter is told in flashbacks) that the only honorable thing for him to do is to commit suicide, which Burt promptly does. Sandy then heads off to Europe, presumably to make good on Burt's debts (the precise legal nature of that obligation is very fuzzy). From Paris, he sends a letter home to his wife, but the play's title notwithstanding, the main point that Baitz seems to want to make is that Sandy has screwed up royally, although what Sandy's repressed homosexuality has to do with Burt's irresponsibility eluded me completely. Sandy's repression and the bad acts resulting from it are not linked convincingly to Sandy's downfall. If the tragic flaw doesn't cause the tragedy, then what's the play about?
The details of the thing—script and production—only make comprehensibility more allusive. We're supposed to believe that Anton has stood by as Sandy's faithful friend for some 40 years; that Sandy is comfortable with but never tempted by the omnipresence of the onetime lover who led him "astray"; that self-loathing homophobe Sandy has a great relationship with Katie's grown and openly gay son Sam; that Sam, a teacher who works in Brooklyn at a public school, spends his Monday evenings chatting amiably with his mother, step-father, godfather (Anton, of course), and Burt Sarris; that the remnants of the great Sonnenberg fortune—five diamonds worth half a million dollars—are stowed in a safe deposit box in a city in Europe (I guess) that I've never heard of and can be readily converted to cash (half a million dollars!) in post-9/11 New York.
Even vaunted director Doug Hughes pulls boners here, notably in staging the Obligatory Gratuitous Frontal Male Nudity Scene, in which young Sandy—about to break up with Anton—stalks naked from Anton's (offstage) bedroom into the living room, where all of his clothes (but none of Anton's) are strewn about, followed by young Anton, carrying a bathrobe that he will put on after he's flashed the audience for a few seconds.
Where Baitz finally and irredeemably loses his way in the play, however, is in his mangling of the (presumed) moral of the story. Sandy's a nasty piece of work, no doubt about it—selfish and craven—but he's presented as being genuinely loved and respected by everyone in the play. (Okay, Anton chides him for not being "true" to his nature, but not in a meaningful way.) Anton, meanwhile—the openly gay guy—is a character out of late Tennessee Williams: a vitriolic, unhappy queen who lives alone and unloved, finding only occasional relief in the company of strangers (or something). Hardly a potent voice for gay pride, this; neither is Sandy's ingenuous declaration that if he were a young gay man today he wouldn't have denied his sexuality—"Everyone's gay today," he proclaims, apparently unaware of the current administration's attitudes toward same-sex coupling. I suspect that a great many scared, repressed young people living in America in 2005—in red states, sure; and blue ones too—would take issue with that statement.
A cast of five talented actors can't make sense of the morass that Baitz has handed them. John Glover scores laughs doing an arch-but-vigorous Quentin Crisp thing as Anton, narrating the tale and occasionally interacting with the other characters. Ron Rifkin gets the mean self-centeredness of Sandy, but we can't see the younger man (who is embodied charmingly in the flashbacks by Daniel Eric Gold) in him; Rifkin is terrific, however, as Dr. Schiffman. Jason Butler Harner is convincing as Burt Sarris but not as the younger Anton. Michele Pawk has fun playing Sandy's mom in one of the flashback scenes, and is fine otherwise in the entirely thankless role of Katie.