Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Paris Letter

Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents THE PARIS LETTER by Jon Robin Baitz.

THE PARIS LETTER, an American play written in 2004 by Jon Robin Baitz, is essentially about two men who meet, fatefully, in the 1960's. As young men they meet in the artistic thrall of a bohemian New York lifestyle. They have a sexually-charged, four month long affair. Both, are intensely stirred.

One, Anton, subsequently, moves successfully through a relatively happy life of self acceptance, working in the lower ends of artistic endeavour, culminating in a restaurant of exquisite reputation but carrying a torch for the unrequited love affair of his youth. A torch that leads to diabolical murder - I guess there is truth in the warning, "Beware the woman (man) scorned", especially if it is scorn carried over almost the length of a long life time.

The other, Sandy, guilt struck and dominated by the mores of the period and demands of his father's business, backs away from this sexual inclination, seeks therapy, marries, has a son and becomes relatively rich. He is, however, not released from his longings and after many infatuations and intermittent affairs, finally, disastrously, in late middle age, falls in love with a young man called Burt. Burt is young and reckless and fouls Sandy's business reputation, who in a moment of anger, urges his young lover to kill himself. He does so. Sandy flees his dead lover's disasters, business collapse, his wife, his child and his long time friend, Anton. He flees New york and travels all the way to a seedy part of Paris. He languishes, still. He sends a letter from Paris home. It has a fateful confession that cannot be ignored. Tragedy stalks the events of the  end of the play with all the certainty of a poorly committed Henry James novel scenario.

Like the famous opening scene in Christopher Hampton's THE PHILANTHROPIST, this play begins with a big bang. In this production, by Stephen Colyer, this revolver bang is underplayed and happens bloodless and noiselessly except for some mounting classical music score.  The Fifties Hollywood film director, Douglas Sirk would have loved it. Enacted in flashback and narrative conversation directly to us by unrequited Anton (Peter Cousens), the play reveals itself as a verbally overstuffed sofa, the kind of sofa that  one might find in the upper eschelons of the over-privileged, over designed homes of the comfortably rich of New York. You have seen them in lots and lots of episodes of the original Law and Order television series (or reference the film version of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION !!!). Verbally it is erudite, if fake in its writing details, crammed full of witty cultural references galore. Unfortunately the play wears those references with unrelenting superficiality and a yearning, leaning, for grotesque melodramatics. For whatever else is said and happens in the schematics of the writing of this play, it is hard to accept the bathetic plotting of the last act of this play which involves, melodramatic clashes with male lover, distraught wife, cancer,  mysterious disappearance, final confessions of devoted loves, death and murder. Murder by Quaaludes ground into expensive whiskey! Oh, really...... you want me to swallow as well? Death from Quaalude poisoning may have been easier.

In looking at other reviews of this work on the Google engine, it seems the play escaped too harsh a judgement. Whether this is out of respect to Mr Baitz, a writer of some record (I recently read his new play OTHER DESERT CITIES and liked it. A lot.) or to the notorious acceptance of GAY plays on the American legit stage without too much rigour (see NEXT FALL blog) or to the quality of the acting in the New York production I can't really tell. For the acting would have to be truly dazzling for one not to note the awful writing.

In the production at the Darlinghurst Theatre this is not the case. Writing of this kind cannot bear the weight of pretence and sentimentality that Peter Cousens and Nicholas Papademetriou bring to their characterisations as Anton and Sandy. 

Mr Cousens as the gay-happy Anton is so saccharine prissy in the role, that I suspected this was an audition for an up coming production of a suburban musical theatre effort of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and kept glancing about for the producers. Beginning with the huge double flowered corsage sprouting from the jacket of his costume to the totally inappropriate luggage that Anton takes to Paris, considering his professional background (Flair magazine for God's sake), almost every choice displayed by this actor is an embarrassment of an aberration of the gay man conception. It flits and flirts with a cliched impression of a certain  gay stereotype with hardly a truthful moment of identification or revelation (that he is, also,  a psychopath/murderer is, indeed, a surprise for Mr Cousens, even as he reveals it, I suspect, as it was, certainly, for us - no clue what so ever had prepared us for this melodramatic twist.)

Mr Papademetriou as Sandy is simply out of his depth in attempting to present any complexity to the dilemmas of his man, beyond a stutter and occasional flubbing of dialogue. His emotional life simply demonstrated on the surface without real disturbance or truthful revelation. The only cost to this actor would have been his dire effort to sustain what he does not believe for so long - it would be exhausting. Without the moving performance of Caleb Alloway as the youthful Sandy there would have been no empathy at all for the character or any reason to sustain concentration.

As a duo, it is, then, extremely painful to watch these actors waltzing around the perimeters of the truth of these characters in their conversations during the course of the play and certainly almost unbearable to sit through, in the last emotional declarations of the final scene in Paris. Each actor attempted to outdo each other in pathetic bathos. No-one won. Least of all the audience. The bar was so low.

Susie Lindeman as Katie the wife of Sandy and mother of the young Sandy is hopelessly, vocally underpowered and except for costume changes is the same woman in action. No other attempt at characterisation.Or is that her intention? There is no doubt that Ms Lindeman has an intellectual grasp of the roles and their function but does not display in any of her scenes the technical ability to express them beyond generalized yadda yadda! Damien Sommerland as Young Anton and Burt gives a fair stab at both but fails to make edited choices to have us acting with him. Mr Sommerland simply asks us to admire his work as an actor in a play.

The only actor to make a constant impression at veracity and truthful commitment is Caleb Alloway, particularly in the early scenes with Mr Sommerland's young Anton. That Mr Alloway survives to  create his work, with all that is about him, marks this young actor as, maybe, something special.

Now, there is a quandary here, for Mr Colyer, as director demonstrates, as he has done before (NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN), instinctive skill and elegance. He has solved the difficulties of the scene changes and moves his actors creditably about the stage. The design solution with Michael Hankin is modest but plausible for the action of the play, even though I felt the whole thing was very under lit (Lighting, Verity Hampson) and the Sound Design by Nate Edmondson, over done and over wrought. Too much, too forward, too notable. His management of his actors especially the more experienced , Mr Cousens, Papademetriou and Ms Lindeman seems to have bought the work unstuck. Who was leading who?

I had a very difficult night in the theatre and was considerably distressed. But better this than last year's Mardi Gras choice of play at the Darlinghurst: JANE AUSTEN'S GUIDE TO PORNOGRAPHY and GORGEOUS BASTARDS. Just.


Michael said...

I saw this last night and thoroughly appreciated its style and for the most part, the approach to characterisation made by the actors. I relished Peter Cousens' choices, the flamboyancy and fullness of his Anton who, it is clear, is knowingly playing with the storytelling for us and for reasons of his own. This is a sombre tale and the arch and, at times, wry wit kept me engaged and listening. There are gay, 'taut' figures like this Anton, who also was shown to have a passionate, desperate aspect to his nature early on in the playing. The play, The Temperamentals, deals with similar territory in a more detached way. Your production which I admired and appreciated very much, fleshed out this historical-political play to reveal the human dimension. Yet I came away last night more 'stirred' and thoughtful than from The Tempermentals. For me, learning that Harry Hayes was the founder of the Radical Fairies movement was a welcome surprise and typical of my valuing of what your production offered: education on the human toll and triumph of early gay empowerment. I'm a formerly-married gay father-of-two. I could see the truth of the complications being explored in PL. My companion's circumstances are not like mine or indeed the character of Sandy but even so he was caused to reflect upon his own past and choices. We left the theatre and proceeded to speak on our pasts and judgements. Conversely, it was from THYESTES that I came away distressed! I was angry that what was clearly a powerful experience for the actors was one from which I was excluded by what Iefteduc took to be the internalised motives of the production. So much on the outside of this production was to be admired but so much obscurity causing a mystery for me on what was central to this piece.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, I am not a director, actor, designer infact I have no role in theatre other than just an adoring subscription holder to sydney theatres, I do have friends that work on the sydney stages and I am a frequent reader of reviews and blogs from the sydney stages.
Over the past few years I have watched and seen things happen that make me question why I even bother anymore. Firstly I think belvoir is a toilet of masturbation. who do they think they are taking away the opportunity for co cops in the little space and only using it for their program half the year? It is pathetic, and the passion artists have for theatre whether they are being paid or not should be rewarded and not dismissed to find other stages on which to perform. and worse is them allowing the same directors to direct year year round! Where is the chap who did our town? Nowhere to be seen! Shame on this once great theatre. I will not elaborate on my disgusted thoughts on new australian plays and so I will get to the point as to why I chose to comment here in the first place. Is the australian theatre industry a joke? Divided opinion is vital and I appreciate this but how can your review be so scathing, suggesting poor shallow performance and stage noise be the polar opposite? A show can divide people, I cannot see how industry heavyweights like yourself and stage noise can have such radical differences in your viewings of an actors performance? Please explain? And note I haven't commented on who I agree with. I am just simply dumbfounded just as I am with so many other areas of theatre I spend hundreds of dollars subscribing too each year.

Kevin Jackson said...


Thanks for your note. I should like to thank you for your cri de coeur concerning the theatre. Without your passion and all the other subscribers, attendees' passions, all the artistic longings would be for naught.

Firstly, the reasoning that the new Belvoir Artistic team have made ( with, I understand approval from Neil Armfield's time), concerning the Downstairs Theatre, and the abandoning of the curated Co-op season, I believe, came from an honourable desire to PAY all the artists that toil within their walls, at least, a fair wage.

They, then, maybe, are limited in what they can do because of their available funds and have not been able to be as prolific as wished. I, like you, sincerely regret that this is the case, now, as it seems that little work from outside that organisation gets seen in the Belvoir building.

The present 'salaried staff' have the opportunity because of their indentured availability. This means the product has become rare, relatively- probably time limitations - and from a limited resource pool. A lot of the same people working within their own value systems of what should be presented. For the audience it has become : the same people speaking through the art form, upstairs and down, with, for some of us, a limited or fading appeal. Variety being a spice in life, this present diet of the same 'voices' is not interesting enough.

It is an impression of mine that the contribution to the Sydney going theatre experience was entirely enriched by the usual high quality of the efforts of the artists who were invited to produce there, in bygone times, and is becoming sorely missed. I also understand, that the Co-op companies were always highly appreciative of their terms and conditions with the Belvoir Theate management, unlike some of the other possible venues. It may have been the most desirable place to be seen- in terms of financial stress relief and artistically. My impression,it is terribly, sorely missed by the profession.

An e-mail to the Belvoir might be of interest to them. Perhaps you and fellow subscriber's should suggest that they organise one of their Sunday Forums to include a discussion with their audience about this dilemma.

Kevin Jackson said...

Continued response to Anonymous…

Next, as to the divergent response to work that is shown in the theatre (as per THE PARIS LETTER that you point out), for me, rather than being a reason of concern, as a lover of the art and craft of the theatre as form, it represents a sense of maturity of our theatre going in Sydney, in the airing of that diversity, which the Internet, unlike any other time, has at last permitted. Declaration and hopefully discussion will follow. The fall out being the manure for better work. Because I don't like it and so-and-so does, does not make them right or wrong, or my enemy, but someone to meet or read to expand my response and deepen with a reasoned passion.In my personal experience, some of my writing has given me the opportunity to meet and enter robust friendships based around the love of the theatre experience. The differences made the bond.

For you, perhaps, looking at responses you respect, and finding them so pole opposite makes for difficult decisions as to where to put your time and money. I reckon, you go with your instinct. If you decide to go, enter the 'fray'. It seems to me that Jane Simmons, lover of the theatre like yourself, and her blog "Shit on Your Play" has opened a dialogue of frustration which the theatre organisations are taking note of.

Responses come from the personal knowledge, or otherwise, that one brings to bear, when there, in the space with the artists and other audience. My response to THE PARIS LETTER is the culmination of my life experiences. Yours is the culmination of yours. There is no right or wrong in art - there really is only challenge. The most important thing for me is respect for the form and the artists and audience involved. My response genuinely comes from a place that essentially appreciates the talents/gifts of the artists with an innate knowledge that if I say I was unhappy, it is generally because I believe, I know, that the artist can do better. The airing of my response is simply asking, why do I feel that way? I then try to reason it.

Thanks once again.

P. S. Iain Sinclair who directed OUR TOWN, last year, directed ROPE at the Bondi Beach Pavilion for the Tamarama Rock Surfers, and BLOOD WEDDING for the Sydney Theatre Company. What he is doing at present I am unsure about.

Drew Dafydd said...

Hi Kevin,

Just thought I'd let you know that Iain Sinclair is currently directing his fourth play for the Australian Academy of Dramatic Art (AADA). A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM opens on May 4 at the Pilgrim.

His translation of BLOOD WEDDING was developed and performed by AADA's final year students in 2010 before being taken up by the STC in 2011.

Iain brings a high-level of acting craft training to our final year students. In fact, he's doing his Max Stafford-Clark tutorials as I type!

Andrew Davidson
Head of Australian Academy of Dramatic Art

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr Jackson, I posted a comment days ago but maybe the crit doesn't like to get critted - if so, you're not honouring your mission statement to facilitate discussion. Or maybe I did something wrong - technology, it's awesome but it can suck sometimes. Anyway, to try and rewrite what I did before, but maybe shorter. I was hoping NOT to like this production because I auditioned for one of the young parts, but I have to say it was bloody awesome. I so totally disagree with all you said, especially about the actors, and I wonder where you were that night you were watching (ie. in your head) or what unrequited or bitter things must lurk in that theatre soul of yours. Cousens was amazing - there ARE queens like that, and we all know at least one them; Papademetriou was totally convincing and moving (and I know the script,by the way - that wasn't stuttering or messin lines, it's written like that), Lindemean was brilliant - interesting, committed, intense, if - in small part I agree - a bit same same in both characters, but so much invested in her work.
But what I object to the most is for someone who claims to 'respect the artists' you sure were pretty disrespectful in your words to demean the work of these actors - particularly the senior ones who have probably had as much experience as you - in such a cruel and unconstructive manner.
I also wanted to point you denegrate actors and productions because they don't achieve the level you want them to aspire to, and yet do we ever see these great heights reached in your productions? The two I saw? NOT. Temperamentals was at best a competent work. That's where it ends.
It's totally acceptable not to like something and to say so, but it's NOT acceptable to be so vicious and disrespectful to people who are actually in your professional family.
Ultimately, it has to be about the audience really, and I know it has sold out most nights and audiences are loving every minute.
I think that kind of says it all, really - maybe it is medicrity they want, but at least they are generous in their response and GENUINE.
Sorry, Mr. Jackson, you can't be rude and disrespectful under the guise of wanting everyone to be better.

Editor said...


Thanks for your contribution to this independent Sydney theatre blog.

Can I remind you - and everyone else who reads this blog - that Kevin Jackson is not the site moderator, editor or administrator. Remember the notice you will have read before posting your comments - under the "Leave Your Comments" headline:

"All comments are moderated by the site editor – so you can expect to wait a few days before your comments are posted (or not). Contact editorial.kjtheatreblog@gmail.comif you are having difficulties posting to this blog."

Alas, I've checked the 'comments awaiting moderation' list, and the comments spam list - and cant find any comments from ANONYMOUS or actorDJ. Perhaps there was a problem on your computer/mobile when you sent your first response?

I strongly encourage everyone writing an extended response - to first compose their message in a text editor (i.e. Word, Open Office, Note Pad etc.) - and then copy and paste it into the comments box for moderation - that way you don't risk loosing your carefully worded post all because of a technical glitch on your PC, ISP or the Google servers.

Regarding your objections to Kevin's approach to blog writing and theatre criticism (or is it just his review of Paris Letter?) - these are important questions and issues that you raise, and deserve attention.

What critical and ethical standards and community functions should 'we' expect from independent, citizen blogs (i.e. this blog, Alison Croggon or Jane Simmons (

How might these functions and expectations differ when compared to professional (i.e. paid) local theatre criticism as exemplified by the work of Jason Blake and Jill Sykes for the Sydney Morning Herald?

Who do we want to talk about when we talk about "the theatre community", "the theatre blogging community", "the general public", and "professional critics" - for these categories to be meaningful, they cant all be the same - what distinguishes them?

Whilst I as editor welcome contributions to this debate on this blog, a more constructive, and informative forum for a sustained discussion of these issues would be the theatre-blogging threads on Crikey and Global Mail websites:

Ben Eltham, "Arts editor shits on theatre blogging, flame war ensues" Crikey, February 10th, 2012

Stephen Crittenden, "Now everyone really is a critic…" Global Mail, February 6th, 2012

Further in-depth consideration of these issues in local and national fora will hopefully draw on the contributions posted on the above threads.

Thanks for you comments

George Khut
Site Editor and Administrator

Anonymous said...

Dear Kevin
Thank you for your response- I particularly enjoyed reading your thoughts on Belvoir and the downstairs theatre. I do agree with you completely that is is very honorable and commendable that Belvoir want to pay all artists involved however they have overlooked the most obvious thing- the artists are going to work for free anyway in almost every other venue in Sydney and none will give the artists anywhere near the exposure that the old BSharp gave them. It was always so exciting those the wonderful co cops downstairs and then the large mainstage upstairs. We got to see so many new faces and outstanding breakthrough performances. Whilst noble- all the shows they can do due to budget are not ensemble productions and ofcourse my biggest issue is we cant see wonderful international profit shares in that space...I will never forget 'fool for love' - 'killer joe', Lonesome west'- why cant the space come back to the artists- I strongly feel that overwhelminglt the majority of our industry want belvoir to allow that space to open to indepandants you think they would back down?
Let's be honest, other than this landmark space, there is only the Darlo, the severely neglicated Old Fitz, and Griffin that a producer could use without the absolute fear that noone will will show up.
Kevin, it is vital that Belvoir open up for independant producers to produce outstanding independant theatre in that downstairs space- The industry in hard enough.