There are intriguing themes at the heart of Jon Robin Baitz's engrossing new play. Spanning four decades (1962–2002), it's a resonant tragicomedy in which internalized homophobia serves as a metaphor for national self-delusion and misplaced life priorities. Moral confusion passed from generation to generation takes its toll on the American Dream. The rise and fall of a filthy-rich, third-generation wheeler-dealer coincides with his desperate need to conform to the expectations of his control-freak father, wreaking havoc on the son's professional and personal lives.
This is among the finest ensemble efforts within memory. Most of the actors play double roles for reasons that prove anything but arbitrary, but those reasons are best kept a surprise. Baitz's intricate dramatic structure enables ingenious thematic connections amid a complex web of characters and time frames. As the self-destructive protagonist, Wall Street wunderkind Sandy Sonenberg, and a self-righteous psychiatrist trying to shove all gays—particularly Sonenberg—back into the closet, Ron Rifkin is a revelation. His finely textured portrayals bristle with sharp insight and searing emotion. There's likewise a remarkable double-whammy turn from Neil Patrick Harris as the opportunistic young entrepreneur who reignites Sonenberg's repressed libido and the dashing young sophisticate who bedded Sonenberg during his youthful years. Josh Radnor gives inspired performances as Sonenberg's frustrated gay son and, in flashback scenes, as Sonenberg himself. Patricia Wettig is mesmerizing as Sonenberg's heartbroken wife and as his gay-friendly mother—a hilarious portrait of a budding fag hag. And keeping the story's labyrinthine time shifts in crystal-clear focus is Lawrence Pressman as the pivotal character of Sonenberg's longtime gay friend, as well as the story's droll narrator, in a hilarious and beautifully witty characterization.
Director Michael Morris helms the tastefully designed and bracingly intelligent three-hour opus. A minor quibble: Baitz slightly compromises his lofty intentions with a few melodramatic plot contrivances, first evidenced by the Sunset Boulevard–type teaser opening, which suggests how the story will end. Or will it? Baitz's profound premiere work offers a compelling contemporary spin on Miller's Death of a Salesman, a literate morality play for our troubled times.
"The Paris Letter," presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Week of Dec. 13: Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Week of Dec. 20: Tue. 8 p.m., Wed.-Thu. 2 & 8 p.m. Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Week of Dec. 27: Tue. 8 p.m., Wed. 2 & 8 p.m., Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Dec. 12-Jan. 2. $19-40. (213) 628-2772.