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.