Jon Robin Baitz’s new work The Paris Letter is a frustrating and non-cohesive, even inchoate, piece of dramaturgy, but it has the supreme advantage over his previous plays of not being predictable. Most of Baitz’s earlier creations, like The Substance of Fire and A Fair Country, can be reduced to a power struggle between a domineering father and a rebellious, usually gay, son. This time around, the domineering father is offstage; the only parent visible onstage, briefly, is the supportive—and perhaps smothering—mother; the power struggle is within the son’s soul as he matures.
Internalizing the father-son deadlock may break its aesthetic rigidity, but hasn’t helped Baitz clarify the situation. Instead, its splintered fragments fly off in all directions, at some cost to coherence, but with an exhilarating sense of liberation. The Paris Letter seems to revel in its jumpiness and its internal contradictions, leaping across time and from topic to topic, with a different focal character every five minutes. It behaves like a child who has just been let out of a locked room to play in the sunshine; everything it sees becomes a new adventure. Inevitably, memories of the locked room keep creeping back to take over, with minimal justification. But any observer can share the child’s excitement.
Baitz’s hero is Sanford “Sandy” Sonnenberg, the Princeton-educated inheritor of his father’s brokerage business, an old-style small firm whose clients are mainly long-standing acquaintances, middle-income wage earners. The narrative veers back and forth in time, showing us Sandy as both a recent graduate (Daniel Eric Gold), reluctant to go into the family business, and as a mature man (Ron Rifkin) who has bowed to his father’s will. Our guide through Sandy’s tangled tale is Anton Kilgallen (John Glover), an aesthete and successful restaurateur who is everything Sandy isn’t: suave, cultivated, life accepting—and openly gay. Just out of Princeton in 1961 and discovering New York on his own, the young Sandy meets the already established and not so young Anton (Jason Butler Harner), and after a few emotional sessions in the sack, retreats in panic from the prospect of a permanent gay relationship to the safety of a psychiatrist’s couch. (Rifkin, in an elegant irony of casting, doubles as his younger self’s shrink.) Sandy and Anton remain friends, however, which is how, somewhere around 1980, Sandy meets and marries Kate Arlen (Michele Pawk), who has plunged into the restaurant business as an escape from a disastrous early marriage that has left her with an infant son. Kate quickly rises from being Anton’s star employee to being his employer, while her son (Gold again) grows up to be an outspoken gay idealist. Sandy doesn’t conceal from her his history with Anton.
Some years later, enter the serpent—actually the first person we see onstage. Burt Sarris (Harner again) is a young hotshot broker of the 1990s, introduced to the cozy circle by Anton, to whom the now aging Sandy takes a liking. Soon, as happens with hotshots, his high-risk dealings have blown much of Sandy’s clients’ hard-earned money. The action of Baitz’s play starts with their confrontation on that point, flashing back, sidewise, and ultimately forward as Sandy goes with demented doggedness through the simultaneous actions of trying to get himself straight in the past and his accounts straight in the present. In the process, he brings everything crashing down on his own head and on everybody else’s.
At first, this convoluted story is easier to buy than it is to follow: Baitz does everything with a histrionic combination of melodramatic urgency and high-culture badinage that suggests Richard Greenberg on amphetamines. Like the characters in other Baitz plays, Sandy and his circle have a relish for material comforts while simultaneously obsessing over their spiritual salvation; what both they and Baitz rarely bother to sort out is their relation to one another. We’re asked to believe so many implausible things, in such quick succession, that it’s not till late in the action, when we see how many unanswered questions have piled up, that the whizbang succession of confrontations and exhortations and celebrations of the good life starts to have diminishing returns.
Still, the presence of all that overheated material, abetted by the speedy, sharp-focused way in which Doug Hughes’s production deals with it, has its effect. Baitz’s story hinges on an undying love, lasting through decades apart, of the kind that used to thrive in the fever-pitch romantic “drammers” of a century ago, like Peter Ibbetson and Smilin’ Through. While this feeling seems weirdly out of place on The Paris Letter‘s high-rolling sophisticates, it has a reward, in theatrical excitement, that neither cynical comedy nor cold-eyed realism can ever quite achieve by itself. So Baitz deserves full credit for spreading the emotional excess around. He undoubtedly thinks he’s writing serious dramas. And J. Hartley Manners undoubtedly felt just the same way about Peg o’ My Heart. Hughes’s cast has cunning fun with its doubled roles (Pawk’s turn as Sandy’s mother and Rifkin’s quasi-Viennese shrink are particular treats), and Glover makes a sly, elegant storyteller.