For some years now, the 38 year old Group Rep has staged productions whose standards were more on the level of community theater than professional theater. Yet judging from its staging of Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Paris Letter” at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, change is in the wind for this veteran -- if not always venerable -- company.
The fact that Jules Aaron was been tapped to direct is another indication of the theater’s heartening upward trajectory. And the selection of the play itself – a lyrical but often graphic account of a star-crossed gay romance – is proof positive of the company’s new vigor and audacity.
The play’s protagonist is Sandy Sonnenberg (excellent Larry Eisenberg), a financier from a wealthy family who has an intense liaison with Anton Kilgallen (bitingly acerbic Lloyd Pedersen) in the early 1960s. But whereas flamboyant Anton, the narrator of the piece, is content with his sexuality, Sandy refuses to live his life as a gay man, consulting an eminent psychiatrist to cure his “disease” and ultimately marrying Katie (affecting Julia Silverman), Anton’s fellow restaurateur and best friend.
Although sometimes a bit long-winded, Baitz infuses “Letter” with plenty of sardonic humor and intellectual heft – qualities that Aaron exploits in his sensitive, hugely entertaining staging. The performers in the excellent cast, which includes Alex Parker and Dan Sykes as Young Anton and Young Sandy, play dual roles – all distinct and beautifully delineated.
Of course, Sandy’s repression ultimately results in tragedy both financial and emotional, made even more keenly regrettable by Sandy’s realization that his shame, in an increasingly tolerant society, has become largely “irrelevant.” That sad epiphany is the play’s most wrenching lesson, eloquently rendered in this astute and moving production.
“The Paris Letter,” Group Rep’s Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 2. $15-$22. Nudity, mature audiences only. (818) 763-5990. www.thegrouprep.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.