GAY L.A. / THEATER REVIEWS

Theater Reviews: The Paris Letter; Red
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8/15/2012

The Paris Letter
Lonny Chapman Theatre  |  10900 Burbank Blvd., NoHo  |  Through Sept. 2  |  Tickets $15-22  |  thegrouprep.com

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz’ rich body of work has included some groundbreaking portraits of gay characters, such as in his hit TV series Brothers & Sisters. In 2004, Baitz’ The Paris Letter bowed locally at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, deservedly winning wide acclaim for its searing tale of internalized homophobia. In its first L.A. production since then, this provocative drama receives a generally solid rendition, highlighted by excellent ensemble work.

Spanning four decades, beginning in the 1960s, Baitz’ resonant tragicomedy explores the far-reaching ramifications that severely repressed feelings have on two lifelong male friends. The play’s compelling story illuminates a powerful metaphor for national self-delusion and misplaced life priorities. Amid the worsening political turmoil and rampant social chaos of our present times, the play feels even more relevant now than ever.

As moral confusion is passed from one generation to the next, Baitz’ protagonist, financial investor Sandy Sonnenberg (Larry Eisenberg), watches the American Dream crumble before his eyes. A man who can’t accept his own emotional and sexual realities, Sandy shuts out a longtime romantic attraction to a sophisticated restaurateur, Anton Kilgallen (Lloyd Pedersen). Emotional meltdown and financial ruin occur for several characters, resulting from Sandy’s life of denial. A suicide is revealed in a Sunset Boulevard-type teaser opening, prior to the story being told in flashbacks.

Director Jules Aaron captures the sly humor as well as the tension and poignancy of this intriguing morality tale, which boasts the guilty pleasure charge of a steamy Harold Robbins novel, coupled with the literacy of a challenging theatrical work. Except for a waiter character (amusingly played by Paul Cady), Pedersen is the only actor tackling only one role. He captures the urbane humor of the effete Anton, while skillfully hinting at the character’s darker side.

Eisenberg is frequently moving as the self-destructive central character, Sandy, and he’s also fine in a brief role as a self-righteous homophobic psychiatrist, trying to shove the younger Sandy firmly back into the closet. Julia Silverman turns in a riveting portrayal as Sandy’s desolate wife and she’s very funny as his open-hearted mother, learning to relate to the baffling world of homosexuality. Alex Parker gives memorable turns as Anton in his younger years and as Burt, an ambitious young opportunist, who gets romantically involved with the elder Sandy. Dan Sykes excels as the young Sandy, as well as Sandy’s frustrated gay son, though Baitz hasn’t fleshed this character out as fully as the others.

The play’s frequently shifting time frames call for an intricate scenic design. Chris Winfield’s attractive set, which includes sliding panels, captures the play’s upscale ambience, but it’s sometimes clumsy and noisy, admittedly hampered by the theatre’s limitations. J. Kent Inasy’s lighting and Liz Nankin’s costumes are well-conceived. —Les Spindle

Red
Mark Taper Forum  |  135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A.  |  Through Sept. 9  |  Tickets $20-100  |  centertheatregroup.org

Plays about the world of visual art, such as Yasmina Reza’s Art and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George, have explored such themes as the lives and creative inspirations of artists, the passion that drives them and the public’s perception of their work. There’s almost a built-in high-brow intellectualism to plays of this sort, but the ultimate test is the veracity of the human drama.

John Logan’s gripping biographical two-hander, Red, which premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2009 and moved to New York in 2010, where it won six Tonys, is currently in its West Coast premiere. The superbly acted and impeccably staged L.A. production stars Alfred Molina recreating his role of abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), which he played in the previous two productions, both times under the direction of Tony winner Michael Grandage, who also helms this staging. New to this rendition is fast-rising actor Jonathan Groff (best known for TV’s Glee and his Tony-nominated work in Spring Awakening). He takes over Eddie Redmayne’s Tony-winning role as Rothko’s ambitious young protégé, a fictional character named Ken.

The action takes place in a studio in the New York Bowery residence of the Russian-American Rothko in the late 1950s. Rothko immediately challenges his new trainee, asking him to comment on his interpretation of a stark red-dominated painting that the artist has created. The hard-driving, impassioned and often furious Rothko vehemently expresses his philosophies about his work and the reactions people should have to art, in general. He draws the inexperienced youth into intense debates, bringing up heady references to classical literature and drama, and art history.

The youth tries mightily to stand his ground and cope with the emotional tirades of the eccentric artiste. Though much time is spent on ideas as abstract as the work that Rathko created, Grandage and the actors keep the intellectual debates stimulating. A fascinating dynamic develops between the ranting egomaniac and his protégé, as the intensity of their clashes becomes a sort of foundation for the close feelings they begin to share. Yet, Rothko’s true love in life seems primarily focused on his art. Molina brilliantly conveys Rothko’s fixations on his work and what it means to him. Groff marches Molina’s fiercely committed performance, offering a portrait of a strong-willed young man who is devoted to the craft he is learning, while demonstrating a need for rewarding  human relationships.

Christopher Oram’s scenic design is wonderfully atmospheric, enhanced by props that allow the actors to assimilate the act of creating art. Neil Austin’s finely textured lighting and Adam Cork’s original music and sound effects are also superbly rendered. —Les Spindle


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