Eclipse’s Paris Letter Looks at Shame and Denial

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Eclipse’s Paris Letter Looks at Shame and DenialThe Paris Letter runs through August 26th. Photo by Adam Clark.
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Eclipse Theatre Company continues their 2017 season with a taut, gripping version of Jon Robin Baitz’s dark The Paris Letter directed by Greg Smith.

The Paris Letter is a steely look at the corrosive nature of shame. It follows two friends, Sanford “Sandy” Sonnenberg (Christopher Moore Griffin) and Anton Kilgallen (David Allen Vargo) from 1963 to 2002. Anton lives his life with no regrets to anyone who looks. He is a bon vivant to the end. Sandy, when we meet him, teeters on the brink of wanting to do something other than follow in his father’s footsteps as a conservative financial manager. Sandy eventually lives in the steps of his father, denying large chunks of his core nature including his homosexuality. That doesn’t last forever and he gives in to temptation with exactly the wrong person, Burt Sarris (Nick Samson). Burt is the “next generation” of financial planners, all flash and charm with none of the fundamentals. As Sandy turns his back on his family, wife Katie (Laura Tirronen) and stepson Sam (Matthew James Mayer II), things end as badly as you would expect.

David Vargo’s mercurial, magnetic Anton understands how often charm comes with a razor in its fist. His character builds his irresistibility with layers of defensiveness, joy, and a ravenous curiosity for people and ideas. As soon as the audience gets a read on who this floating center of the universe is, he artfully shifts those layers and lets them crack. Christopher Griffin draws a punishingly real picture of a man crumbling from one tragic flaw. What’s amazing about Griffin’s performance is the way he projects that falling-apart without an ounce of the maudlin or any forced sentiment. These two virtuosic performances ground and float through everything else on stage at all times. Tirronen’s Katie has less stage time but makes a forceful impression as a character with a defined inner life every bit the equal of the flashier men at center stage.

The structure of The Paris Letter jumps back and forth from flashback to the present day with Mayer doubling as Young Sandy, Samson as Young Anton, Griffen as Sandy’s shrink and Tirronen as Sandy’s mother. Samson’s slinky, smiling killer instinct manifests in both his roles without recycling gestures. Mayer fuses a cool, striving ambition to an adorable earnestness. In general, the structure works without being obtrusive. The careful doubling echoes throughout the play.

Some of the flashbacks drag. In particular, Young Sandy’s visit to his controversial psychiatrist known for “success in curing homosexuality” takes too long priming before delivering its sting. The play also feels truncated in its second act with a flash-forward that’s the one time Anton’s narration is straight, rapid-fire exposition instead of the context and subversion he masters throughout the rest of the performance.

Greg Smith’s direction streamlines the action and focuses the audience on a play that could have gotten bogged down in minutiae and mundane events. He has a masterful eye, aided by his tasteful set and Kathy Sturm’s lighting and sound, for what matters most.

One thing theatre does best is to hold a cracked, uncomfortable mirror to our shared human failings. It’s hard to look away in the room with flesh and blood people. With this production, Eclipse not only lives up to that challenge but it exults in shared humanity. The Paris Letter veers toward the pulpy before it ends but it’s a remarkable production of rich, meaty work.

The Paris Letter runs through August 26 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. Featured in photo: Left to right: Nick, Samson, Christopher Moore Griffin, David Vargo, Laura Tironnen. For tickets and more info, visit eclipsetheatrecompany.org.

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