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Arts and Entertainment

Jon Robin Baitz's Play 'The Paris Letter' Returns to Los Angeles

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In advance of Center Theatre Group's upcoming production of the new Jon Robin Baitz hit "Other Desert Cities," The Group Repertory Theatre in North Hollywood is now reviving Baitz's messy melodrama "The Paris Letter," which premiered at CTG in 2004 before opening in New York the following year.

The action starts about 10 years ago, toward the end of the play's chronological history, as aging investment banker Sandy Sonnenberg (Larry Eisenberg) and young Wall Street hotshot Burt Sarris (Alex Parker) are simultaneously concluding a romantic tryst and panicking over the collapse of what we'd now inevitably call the Madoff-style financial disaster they've perpetrated on their clients (though "The Paris Letter" actually preceded by a few years the real-world financial scandals that its events mirror). Sarris is the true wrongdoer here, but many of Sandy's long-time clients are the ones taking the hit. Rather than live in shame among his family and friends, Sandy flees to Paris and writes a confessional letter to his wife back home.

The play then travels back and forth through time to tell the story of how New York investment banking family scion Sandy (played as a young man by Dan Sykes) graduated from Princeton and discovered he was gay in the early '60s, several years before the Stonewall revolution made it somewhat more feasible for a man in his social and professional position to consider embracing that identity. Rather than commit to his happy relationship with boyfriend Anton (also played by Parker), young Sandy begins a five-day-a-week therapy regimen with a psychiatrist (Eisenberg) who notoriously specializes in curing homosexuality and he eventually marries Anton's friend Katie (Julia Silverman).

It is the older Anton (Lloyd Pedersen) himself who serves as a sort of host throughout the play, appearing in between scenes to fill us in about goings-on that don't get depicted by the actors themselves. And it is Anton, too, who introduces Sandy to Burt, the young man who both provokes Sandy's sexual self-rediscovery and leads him to personal and professional ruin.

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A lot of the interesting dramatic material inherent in Baitz's play gets buried in the slog of its haphazard narrative devices (the dialogue in at least two scenes includes a character incongruously announcing what year it is, presumably so that we in the audience can try and keep up) and Anton the master of ceremonies' ponderous pontifications ("We know that there are cures and diseases, but sometimes, I have noticed it is very hard to tell which is which" or "We live in something called the 'Information age' but not in an age of meaning"). Which is too bad, because "The Paris Letter" really does contain the essence of a moving, even heart-breaking play, especially when at the end of his life Sandy recognizes that his youthful abandonment of his true self was needless folly, that all his concerns about the future were "irrelevant, a joke. The whole world is gay now and it's fine."

Everyone in the cast of the current Group Rep production adeptly delivers impassioned line readings throughout this unwieldy play, mostly in dual roles, but only Eisenberg as Sandy effectively creates an emotionally complex portrait of his character as a flawed and frustrated victim of his just-a-decade-too-early birth date.

"The Paris Letter," directed by Jules Aaron, plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 through Labor Day weekend. General admission tickets are $11-$22 reserved by phone at (818) 763-5990, $14.50 on goldstar and (using code 008) Plays 411, $14 through LA StageTix.