New York City Theater
Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre,
Two Jews walk into a bar. So the joke begins. But, this time, we might say that two Jews take over the stage. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz and actor Ron Rifkin have, over the years, welded themselves into a remarkable team as they depicted the educated, intellectual, angst-ridden AmericanJew. Past joint successes, for example, have included “Substance of Fire” and “Three Hotels.”
Indeed, as Baitz proceeded to write for Rifkin, it was a fruitful time—a flowering of two careers. No wonder Baitz-Rifkin fans could hardly wait for the latest effort to surface—“The Paris Letter” now at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.
But, this time around, the magic fails to materialize. Alas, “The Paris Letter” has a long way to go, before these Baitz ramblings and observations shape into a play. In focusing on one gay couple, Baitz may indeed be exploring his own life story, with all its complicated mazes. (Baitz shared a long-term relationship with noted director Joe Mantello, a relationship which was recently dissolved, we are told.) Granted that this is appropriate, that this is what playwrights do. But Baitz has yet to turn the amorphous material into a clear-cut hard-hitting drama, with characters who reach out to us.
The story deals with one Sandy Sonnenberg, who, in his youth, has a homosexual “fling,” as he defines it, with the restaurateur Anton Kilgallen (John Glover). But he goes on (with the dubious help of a therapist) to marry their mutual friend Katie Arlen (Michele Pawk) and to become a staid banker. As we move back and forth in time, with endless Baitz chatter, Sandy Sonnenberg (Rifkin) struggles with his sexual identity and financial problems. It is Anton, who stands outside the action, serving as narrator and memoirist.
Granted that Baitz takes his time in exploring three characters in some depth—the man, his wife, his lover--but leaves us with no sense of where the story is going. And he further muddies the waters as Sandy the banker manages to lose the money of his wealthy old-time German-Jewish clients. This is tied in with an affair he has with another man, when he finally succumbs to his homosexual urges.
The big surprise of this production, under Doug Hughes’ agile direction, is John Glover as the older Anton. Glover, who has tended to go over the top in past shows, gets it just right here. He is totally comfortable with himself, with his fellow players, and with the audience, and, as a result, offers us a likeable, human Anton. Others in the cast (many playing two roles) are first-rate, as Hughes moves them skillfully from one portrayal to another. This includes Michele Pawk, Jason Butler Harner, and Daniel Eric Gold. The only disappointment, oddly, is Rifkin himself, proving that one should never approach a show with prior expectations. Rifkin, in this role as the embattled and confused Sandy, appears to be miscast. Never once does one believe in his homosexual dilemma—or any other difficulties he may be having.
In short, we would hope Baitz takes this “Letter” back to the computer and proceeds with heavy rewriting.
-- Irene Backalenick
June 11, 2005