Monday, August 6, 2012

The Paris Letter by Jon Robin Baitz

Dan Sykes, Alex Parker - Photo Sherry Netherland 

By Joe Straw

“My story is of Sandy Sonnenberg.  He is my subject.  Sandy, son of Judah, grandson of Sholem, Isaac, and so on; an ancient family of money lenders going back hundreds of years to the very beginnings of eastern European ghettos.  The line ends with him.  And I am going to tell the story as if we were great, good, old friends.” – Anton

And yes, Anton Kilgallen (Lloyd Pedersen) does tell the tale as though they were great friends, or does he?

The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre presents The Paris Letter by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Jules Aaron. It is a terrific show for adults with adult themes.  This well-written play seduces us to appreciate the complexities of the human mind when it is tormented by accumulated years of personal treachery.

The story begins in February 2001. A thirty-something Burt Sarris (Alex Parker) and a sixtyish Sandy Sonnenberg (Larry Eisenberg) are kissing in a hysterical embrace. It is one last fling of kissing, or fighting, and/or tearing at each other’s clothes.  But something is wrong.

Through dialogue, we learn that Sandy is completely confused about the where-a-bouts of the money he invested with Burt’s “boutique” investment house. Hundreds of million of dollars are lost in Enron-type trades.  Sandy is responsible to his investors and he feels betrayed by a “three-card-monte hustling, arriviste faggot”.

Burt tells Sandy that the money lost is in Burt’s name and that his name will be ruined in the press. 

Sandy, so infatuated with Burt, he forgets to hew to the ways of the previous money-lenders in his family. Still, he has a plan to pay back his investors.  As for Burt, Sandy suggests that his only way out is to kill himself, which he does. Sandy then gets on a plane for France on a “quick fiduciary recovery mission” leaving his wife and friend behind.

Walking out from the shadow of this tragic event and into a light, Anton tells us a little something about his life and how he befriended this sordid cast of characters.

Anton’s life has been his restaurant business.  And through his connection with Sandy and his wife, this life is now in shambles.   

“I put my life savings into the place, and it seemed safe enough, there was a solid and loyal clientele and a bottom line. (Beat) I lost my life savings in the debacle.” – Anton  

But how did this happen?

Moving back and forth in time, we venture back to 1998 where everyone is sitting down to a late night dinner discussing the President’s involvement in a very nasty extra-marital affair.

“He had a weakness.  Which was exploited by unscrupulous people; yes.  But. Acting on those appetites made him terribly vulnerable, and therefore made us less safe.” – Sandy

It is a line that comes back to haunt Sandy.

Katie Arlen—Sandy’s wife (Julia Silverman), Sam—Katie’s son (Dan Sykes), Burt, Sandy, and Anton seem to agree that if the President had just said “I’m sorry,” the story would have been over.

As the night of heavy drinking takes its toll, Sandy’s wandering eyes envelops every inch of Burt’s alluring physique. Sandy reaches across the table to caresses Burt’s hand in remembrance of a moment not so long ago. 

The wine or Sandy’s predilection blurs the division of a sexual partner and/or an investment partner.    Natheless, Sandy is wary of moving hundreds of million of dollars to someone that he has known for a few short Monday nights.  But when Burt mentions “The Sonnenberg Fund for Education,” Sandy is hooked.

Lloyd Pedersen, Larry Eisenberg - Photo Sherry Netherland

Later that week, Anton meets his compeer and trusted friend Sandy for dinner to discuss the millions Sandy is responsible for, his infatuation with Burt, and his wife.

“Do you discuss this with Katie ever?  Our shared history?” – Sandy

“That we had an affair in 1962?  Please?  It’s a joke, it’s an actual joke, really, and an old one.  Why do you ask?” – Anton

“Oh come on – it was not an affair, it was too brief to be an affair, it was somewhere in the vicinity of a minor blip on the Kinsey scale.” - Sandy

“So to speak.” – Anton

Anton seems to understand Sandy.  And Anton knows Sandy’s history with therapy did not turn out well and reminds Sandy that his life is spinning out of control.  But Anton’s apotropaic words of wisdom lead Sandy in the opposite direction and into the young arms of Burt Sarris.

Going back in time to November 1962, Young Sandy (Dan Sykes) enters the apartment of Young Anton (Alex Parker).  Young Anton bides his time but is clearly the aggressor in this relationship.  Young Sandy is confused about his sexuality and waits for the inevitable sexual encounter.  And after the small talk, they begin a relationship that lasts four months – just four months, November 1962 through February 1963.

Anton muses that Young Sandy was in love with him and Young Sandy was living in hell.

Later, a mystified Young Sandy seeks the help Dr. Moritz Schiffman (also play by Larry Eisenberg) about turning his sexuality around.  In his first session, Young Sandy describes a sexual encounter with an older camp counselor.  Young Sandy believes that should anyone find out about the encounter, it would shut the door to his life.  When Young Sandy tells Dr. Schiffman about the money, power and influences of his father, Dr. Schiffman believes Young Sandy needs to see him five times a week.

Dan Sykes, Paul Cady, Julia Silverman - Photo Sherry Netherland

Young Sandy has a problem of paying for these treatments so he has lunch with his mother, Lillian (also Julia Silverman), at Anton’s restaurant, Le Singe D’Or. As she consumes her multiple “Old Fashions” with umbrellas, Lillian observes the flamboyant things on the wall and the men who visit the restaurant. It is obvious that Lillian understands Sandy’s persuasions.

“Darling.  I want you to be happy, I don’t care what you do, be happy.” – Lillian

To help Sandy in the quest for happiness, Lillian gives him jewelry to pay for psychoanalysis. And with enough money in hand and an excited psychoanalyst in tow, Sandy leaves Anton for greener pastures.

This is the second time I’ve been to The Lonny Chapman Theatre and I am impressed by the actors’ commitment to the craft. This is a marvelous ensemble in a wonderful play.

There are a lot of things to discuss when leaving the theatre and plays like this are open to interpretation. Right or wrong, I’ll toss my interpretations out there and you can give your reactions below.

This production has one tiny problem; it is a character trait, a choice created by the director or actor, an action that takes over siginificant moments. Perhaps it is a minor point and maybe I’m making a big deal about this one.  But I will get to this later.

Sandy Sonnenberg and Dr. Moritz Schiffman are both played by Larry Eisenberg.   Sonnenberg, even as an adult, is still confused about his sexuality. He has worked on this his entire life and his confusion leads him in terrible directions and to disturbing actions. It is a part of life for which he is never able to reconcile and causing a state of breathless confusion when confronted with challenging issues.  Eisenberg does a fine job as Sonnenberg although he seems too physical at times yet without making a dramatic physical connection, a connection that changes the relationship. Eisenberg also plays Dr. Moritz Schiffman, a doctor who is excited to learn about young male’s sexual awakening. Eisenberg is terrific, as Sandy, but the Schiffman character needs further exploration.  It is open to too many interpretations considering the character’s objective. Obviously money is one objective but this doctor wants to change a gay man into a straight man for his book.  He must be very excited about this prospect and the prospect of documenting his findings.   

Lloyd Pedersen as Anton Kilgallen has an interesting characterization. Think Jack Benny in drag, no, just think Jack Benny. He says he will tell the story as though they were great friends but telling us doesn’t mean he must stick to those words. Throughout this piece, he is constantly battered by the emotions of his friend who is gay one minute and straight the next. In the end, he has lost so much that he doesn’t blink and yet he must be a very tortured soul.  With that background, he has a reason for doing what he feels he must do and taking what he must to get back his life. His actions are horrific but he doesn’t bat an eye.  He tells his story with flair and nuance but without the pain of those moments that cumulatively lead him to do the dastardly deed.  Still Pedersen does a lot of good work.

Alex Parker does a fine job as Burt Sarris.  As the character, he is so young and so sure of himself while doing things he knows he must not do.  He will stop at nothing to take your money and give it to the rich.  As the character Young Anton, Parker shines.  His voice is strong and his physical movements are precise.  As the Young Anton, he literally takes the bull by the horns and plows his way into his misguided partner’s life. Parker gives an excellent performance as Sarris and as Young Anton.

Dan Sykes has dual roles as Sam and Young Sandy. As Sam the stepson, his performance is very nuanced and wonderful to watch especially the dinner scene when his stepfather slights him by not pouring him wine. As Young Sandy, his nerves are completely on edge.  He is ambivalent about having a long-term sexual relationship with another man and suddenly finding himself in his apartment without clothes and filled with shame. Sykes gives a tremendous performance.   

Julia Silverman is fantastic as Lillian Sonnenberg.  The scene in the restaurant is just terrific as the mother to Young Sandy.  She is loving and gentle, giving, and understanding of her son’s plight.  She is specific in her desires and gets what she wants for the sake of love. As Katie Arlen, she has many wonderful moments but is missing the pain of having to endure the philandering ways of her husband. The hurt does not appear to be that great, or deep, and it must be. Also, I believe (in the giving away scene) that the information she receives should be the first time she has heard it. Still, Silverman creates a fantastic physical and emotional life in both characters.  She is wonderful to watch.  

Paul Cady as the waiter was a crowd pleaser.

Jules Aaron, the director, did a fine job with production and there are a lot of great things in this presentation. The problem I mentioned is of a character trait, an inhaler that was used to help Sandy when he was out of breath.  The inhaler takes over a scene when we should be concerned with the words and how those words change or affects the relationship. Dramatic social intercourse should not be interrupted by the use of a crutch (the inhaler). Sandy says some really hateful things and the inhaler becomes the reactor and not the actor.  When we see him pull out the inhaler, two things come to mind: does the actor physically need this? And is it specific to the scene?  The inhaler throws things slightly off in the play. It is said the inhaler ties the two characters as one in the same person but we already know it’s the same.  Sandy is not a hard name to forget.

Also, the scene with Sandy and Schiffman at the end of the first act needed work to propel the audience into the second act.  It doesn’t lead us anywhere and, on this night, it did not move us in a specific direction.

One more thing we need to know definitively is that Anton has witnessed the murder.  It makes things clearer.

John Robin Baitz, the writer, did not the write the inhaler in his play. But what he did write is pretty awesome and deserves your undivided attention. I generally do not like flashbacks but this play gained momentum as we journeyed back and forth in time in a way that was fascinating.  

Chris Winfield’s Set Design is very effective with sliding doors that give us a peek at the nicely decorated rooms.  The sets could have been a little more downstage and a little more connected with the audience.

Other members of this crew are:

Sherry Netherland – Assistant Director & Program
Patrick Burke – Producer For The Group Rep
Matias Ponce – Stage Manager
J. Kent Inasy – Lighting Design
Liz Nankin – Costume Design (Also a very nice job with the costumes.)
Steve Shaw – Sound Design
Max Kinberg – Original Music
Jimmy Ogburn – Lightboard
Michele Bernath – Prop Mistress
Emily Doyle, Heliana Martinez – Running Crew
Nora Feldman – Public Relations
Dough Haverty art & soul design – Graphic Design

Run to see the production and take someone who thinks they may be misguided.

Through September 2, 2012

Reservations: 818-763-5990 

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