Jon Robin Baitz has lived with the troublesome title, "America;'s most promising playwright," for some time now. Following his off-Broadway success with two plays, The Film Society and The Substance of Fire, (both written before the age of 30) Baitz seemed destined to become the next giant of the American stage. One prominent player in the New York theater world quipped "If; Arthur Miller had married Noel Coward, their son would have been Robbie Baitz."
In the thirteen years since The Substance of Fire, Baitz has accomplished many things--won awards, earned grants, penned screenplays--but he has not written a major play. His last work, 10 Unknowns, contained--like all his plays--intelligence, humor, and an interesting topic; but even with a premiere cast that included Donald Sutherland, Julianna Margulies, and Denis O'Hare, the play seemed small and unimportant.
Baitz is a New Yorker these days, though interestingly enough, he was born here in Los Angeles and even was a graduate of Beverly Hills High. This makes the world premiere of Baitz's new play, The Paris Letter, a homecoming of sorts. The first rate production currently running at the new Kirk Douglas Theatre also reunites veterans of previous Baitz productions. All of these things add up to remind you just why Jon Robin Baitz matters, both to Los Angeles and to theater everywhere.
The Paris Letter may not be a masterpiece...at least not yet, but it shows that Baitz is still capable of writing an ambitious, substantial, and thoroughly engaging drama. The Paris Letter is easily his best play since The Substance of Fire and this initial production even hints that the play, with revisions, could become a major American work.
The story of The Paris Letter revolves around a character named Sandy Sonenberg. We alternate between seeing the young Sandy (played by Josh Radnor) deciding whether to follow his artistic bent or follow in his father's footsteps and take over the family business and the old Sandy (played by Ron Rifkin) who despite his vast financial successes is trying to find meaning in his life. The events are narrated by Anton Kilgallen, Sandy's longtime friend who, it turns out, has a very personal motivation for telling the audience this long, tragic tale.
The play features big events: an impulsive love affair, a vast fortune lost, a family torn apart--but the backdrop of this narrative is a quiet investigation of choice: why do people choose one life instead of another? Can 17 years of expensive therapy make a person not choose what he really wants? And of course, does making a choice really matter at all?
The play asks these questions as well as entertains, proving that The Paris Letter is a thoughtful and significant work; but it must be said that it still seems a bit rough. The third act in particular races through events and seems to miss some of key moments in the story. There's no doubt that Baitz has concocted a great narrative, but it feels as if he still needs to figure out the exact order and length of some of the scenes.
This roughness is smoothed over somewhat by an excellent cast. Patricia Wettig and Neil Patrick Harris are good in smaller roles, but it's Rifkin and especially newcomer Josh Radnor who excel and make Baitz's words come to life.
The key role in The Paris Letter, however, is that of the narrator, Anton. Anton is well played by Lawrence Pressman, but he always seems to be acting--and Anton is the one character who should always simply be himself.
The one scene where Pressman feels natural is the lunch scene with Sandy--a scene where the writing is so precise, so natural, no nuanced that it feels as if any actor could step in and make it sing. Of course, that's not true, but this scene and others like it in The Paris Letter show that Jon Robin Baitz is still an expert dramatist--one who eventually should become more than just America's most promising playwright.
The Paris Letter continues at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through January 2.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.