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Jon Robin Baitz’s The Paris Letter inverts tragedy, punishing its hero for conforming too much.

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Sleek décor, exotic cities, sex, violence, Ron Rifkin: The opening moments of The Paris Letter have all the makings of a top-drawer episode of Alias. A great deal of money seems to have been lost someplace tropical, but the sphinxlike Rifkin, like the villain he plays on the series, doesn’t lose his cool. Is he kissing that guy or trying to kill him? You don’t know what the hell’s happening, but you’re into it.

That early thrill makes the rest of Jon Robin Baitz’s play even more disappointing. His premise beguiles: Sandy Sonenberg (Rifkin), a hugely successful, deeply closeted money manager, sees his business and marriage destroyed by an affair with a protégé, Burt (Jason Butler Harner). As narrated by Sandy’s best friend and long-ago lover, Anton Kilgallen (John Glover, bearded and wily—a satyr très distingué), the play shapes up to be a morality tale with a modern twist. Baitz spends two and a half hours working out that premise—steadily, methodically squandering its promise.

The play’s length is no accident (a liability, but no accident). Baitz wants to imbue Sandy with a kind of tragic grandeur. Young Sandy (Daniel Eric Gold), with his Princeton degree and bright prospects, is an only son. As he comes of age in the early sixties, his father expects him to take over the family’s investment business. But Sandy has other cravings, like career fulfillment and sex with men. That’s when he wanders into a fashionable restaurant run by the fashionable Anton.

Tragedy, in the old style, is visited upon those who transgress the laws of God, nature, or man. Baitz gives the formula a blue-state spin. Anton offers his lover the chance to enjoy an openly gay life, but Sandy chooses the false respectability of the closet. He is punished for his conformity, not for failing to conform. Because he lacks the courage to buck family and social mores, Sandy is visited by scourges that would rattle Job.

For all its potential, the play miscarries for mundane reasons, like wobbly focus and lack of proportion. The fun of tragic figures—think of Oedipus or Macbeth—often lies in watching them unravel. But by the time we meet Sandy, the unraveling is pretty well under way, and Anton’s flashbacks don’t offer much of a view. We see almost nothing of Sandy’s fatal affair with young Burt, let alone any of the exciting financial machinations promised by the opening scene. Sandy’s marriage to Katie (Michele Pawk) doesn’t seem to engage Baitz’s imagination, so her sad fate isn’t moving either.

Instead, the story wallows in the early affair between Sandy and Anton. We get a perfunctory scene with Sandy’s mother and an endless episode of his psychoanalysis (sample topics: Mingus, Freud, furtive summer-camp hookups, Dostoyevsky). Baitz hit upon an exciting subject, then wrote many of the least exciting scenes available to him.

Doug Hughes makes as strong a case for the play as seems plausible. From John Lee Beatty he gets stripped-down scenery that slides on and off as needed, the technique that gave Doubt its fluid grace; from Peter Kaczorowski he gets lighting that both sets mood and gives key moments a pinpoint exactness, as would a cinematic close-up. Hughes handles space so adroitly, carves each scene with such dexterity, you sometimes overlook the play’s lack of momentum and its excesses.

He’s also drawn nimble work from his actors. Baitz tells his story through purposeful doubling of roles, a method that reminded me of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. Harner plays the seductive Burt in the 21st-century scenes and the cosmopolitan Anton in the sixties scenes; Pawk plays Sandy’s mother and his wife. Though all hands do well, Glover stands out, holding our attention with a certain suave charisma; when he cocks his chin just so, he might be Kirk Douglas in late-heroic mode. Rifkin impresses, too. Like the other roles Baitz has written for him, the confused, sorrowing Sandy gives the actor more challenging tasks than he gets in his usual episode as TV’s Arvin Sloane. If only they were as exciting.

The Paris Letter
By Jon Robin Baitz.
Laura Pels Theatre. Through August 7.


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