Review: “The Paris Letter” (Darlinghurst Theatre)

In a play redolent with evocative lines, the one that has stayed with me, and sums up the melancholy of the whole story is “the unappeasable misery of the joyless”.

It’s a line used by the central protagonist, Anton (Damian Sommerlad – young Anton / Peter Cousens – older Anton), who contrary to the spirit of the 1960s where homosexuality is regarded as a disease to be cured, embraces his queerness with gusto, regarding it as an intrinsic part of who he is.

His relaxed, almost hedonistic stance is in stark contrast to Sandy (Caleb Alloway), a repressed young Jewish man who is under pressure to get married, and join the family accountancy practice. Supported by a mother who knows he is gay – though neither uses the word, preferring to describe men who like men as “delicate” – he embarks on an affair with the liberated Anton who runs a cafe frequented by gay men in New York, Le Singe Dore (The Golden Monkey).

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Damian Sommerlad and Caleb Alloway star as lovers, Anton and Sandy

At first they spend every waking moment together that they can, indulging every libidinous desire that comes their way as well as taking in art, movies, theatre. In other words, a normal young people getting to know each other and falling headlong, madly in love.

But right on the cusp of true happiness, Sandy retreats, forsaking the chance to be truly content and starts seeing Dr Schiffman who has reputedly “cured” many gay men in the past, and promised to rid a deeply conflicted Sandy of his unwanted desires.

It seems to work, at least enough for Sandy to make some sort of peace with his very active demons. Remaining friends with Anton, he is introduced to a close friend of his former lover, Katie (Susie Lindeman, who also plays Sandy’s mother with great verve and gusto), falls in love and marries her, adopting the acceptable role of husband, father to Katie’s son Sam (also played by Caleb Alloway) and head of the family business.

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He seems to have successfully “cured” himself – although Anton sneers at one point that “it is often hard to tell the cure and the disease apart” – until he has a brief tumultuous affair with a younger man many years later, and his house-of-cards life, precarious from the start, comes crashing down around him, with tragic consequences for everyone involved.

The play, narrated throughout by Anton – Peter Cousens is impressive as a man who has enjoyed his life yet feels the pain even in his advanced years of losing his only true love – is a moving depiction of the way the choices people make have profound effects many years down the track. It is a story of love found, and then discarded as one party in the relationship caves to intense pressure from a society which prefers people to be normal rather than happy.

Sandy particularly is as joyless as Anton alleges. Though on paper he gained everything he wanted when he made his Faustian pact with Dr Schiffman, and was happy to a degree, he gave up the one thing he truly wanted – the love of Anton. Though they remained friends, neither man truly gained from the choices made by Sandy, whose desire to repress his desires played into a great many other facets of his life including his business career.

Older Anton and Sandy

So at it’s heart, the play is a moving account of regret and loss. You are moved by the desperate need of Sandy to feel truly loved, and fulfilled, and his utter inability to bring this about. You grieve for Anton who stands by as his the love of his life marries a woman and lives the life he thinks he should have, rather than the one he wants which would have included Anton as intimate lover rather than good friend. And you weep for those caught in the middle, Katie and her son Sam who lose in spectacular fashion what they never truly possessed in the first place.

But thanks to sparkling, beautifully written dialogue, and actors who know just how it should be used, the play, for all its great sadness emboldens you to live your live as authentically as possible since that it is the only thing that can truly bring happiness.

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