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Still Stunted Decades After Stonewall

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Jon Robin Baitz’s latest is high-minded, but pessimistic about gay pilgrims’ progress

A bright young man tortured by his homosexual desires seeks a cure from a therapist, marries a woman and soaks his sorrows in bourbon. A liberated dandy relies on flair and cutting wit for survival, yet leads a loveless, unfulfilled life.

Is this some 1970s relic from Mart Crowley, the fellow who wrote “The Boys in the Band”?

No, it’s “The Paris Letter,” the latest effort by Jon Robin Baitz, whose work––“The Substance of Fire,” “Three Hotels,” “Ten Unknowns”––has challenged and dazzled intelligent theatergoers and scooped up several major awards in recent years.

This densely packed, ambitious drama, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company, elegantly poses some important, even universal, questions about sex, power and missed opportunity.

Set mostly in New York and jumping from 1962 to 2002, the play centers on Sandy Sonnenberg (Ron Rifkin, who won a Tony for “Cabaret”), a successful money manager whose world crumbles after a cocky whiz-kid partner squanders their clients’ millions.

Baitz is at his best when exploring the complex, corroding 40-year bond between Sandy and Anton (John Glover, Tony-winner for “Love! Valor! Compassion!”), his best friend and one-time lover.

The shameless Anton, who worked for years in a trendy restaurant with Katie (who ends up marrying Sandy), accuses Sandy of being in denial about his true sexuality to secure the comforts of conventional family life. Sandy, in turn, accuses Anton of living life “within the narrow prescribed confines of a sexual identity” and being constantly adrift and alone.

Despite the tired subject matter, “The Paris Letter” has many bright spots. Director Doug Hughes, fresh from his Tony win for “Doubt,” works wonders with the uneven material, as does most of the engaging cast. Though saddled with the tricky task of addressing the audience directly as gossipy narrator as well as main character, Glover is devilishly sublime.

Clever dual-casting choices lend a Freudian resonance, such as Rifkin playing both the role of grown-up Sandy, and the therapist to young Sandy––so he is, in a sense, analyzing himself. In his finest Viennese accent, Rifkin gets the biggest chuckle of the evening when he promises his distraught young client: “There will be times when you hate me… You will miss appointments. I shall charge you, but never abandon you.”

The delightful Michele Pawk, who plays Katie, also sparkles as Sandy’s brassy, boozy mother, Lillian. (She was so unrecognizable that I had to check Playbill.) Daniel Eric Gold, magnificent as the anguished young Sandy, also plays Sam, Katie’s confident, “hyper-caffeinated, overly articulate” son from a previous marriage. Jason Butler Harner, an amazing, young Anton, also plays Burt, the combustible love interest of Sandy who causes the house of cards to come tumbling down.

Baitz wrestles with some heavy themes––sexual repression, betrayal, revenge, self-destruction—and much of the play works. Unfortunately, the high-minded dialogue, which crackles with rich insight one moment, can be obtuse the next. “People who are lost in love own Manhattan,” declares Anton, as if he expects us to nod in agreement.

Ultimately, “The Paris Letter” is an overwrought, yet also somber affair, populated with joyless souls. Much of the dramatic vitality is dissipated by the jump-cuts between time periods. Brains are blown out, a lethal dose of painkillers is ingested and cancer metastasizes beyond hope, but instead of being moved, I just felt numb.

And that titular missive from Paris, it turns out, pales as the earth-shattering revelation it was cracked up to be.

Perfectly timed for Gay Pride Month, “The Paris Letter” may be the gayest play around. The drama is packed with male-on-male embraces and smooches, and gratuitous frontal nudity. Even teenaged Sam likes dudes, though thankfully he’s a thoroughly modern queer who prefers “keepin’ it real” to fretting over his sexuality.

Perhaps the biggest dramatic jolt is reserved for the Roundabout’s subscribers. Baitz is openly gay, but true to its repressive spirit, any hint of the play’s gay content has been thoroughly expunged from the theater company’s Web site and promotional mailers.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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