nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 6, 2006
In David Foley's compelling new play Paradise, characters spend almost all of their time talking—seriously, earnestly—about very essential and fundamental subjects. The question "Do you believe [in God]?" is repeated over and over; other questions about the nature of love, connection, responsibility, tolerance, and family ties surface and resurface and resonate as Foley's linked story lines, about seven disparate New Yorkers, intersect and interweave. The play has been given a smashing production by Blue Coyote Theater Group and Access Theater, directed by Gary Shrader and featuring a fine ensemble. If you're interested in a drama of ideas—the kind of thing that Lanford Wilson and Edward Albee used to trade in once a season or so—then Paradise may be just what you've been waiting for.
At the center of Foley's play is Robbie, a 30-something man who is trying to reconnect with life in increasingly desperate ways. When we first meet him, he's entertaining a pair of Pentecostal door-to-door missionaries in his home, seriously considering the rote questions about faith and God and Jesus that they pose. Next, we find him visiting his married friends Betty and Stu; Betty is trying to understand why Robbie has left Manhattan to live in "the country" (actually, a suburban community in Westchester County) and then is enormously surprised when Robbie reveals that his sister committed suicide six months ago and he's only just telling her about it now.
We never really find out much more about what may have triggered Robbie's anomie and inner turmoil, by the way; but we see it grow as he meets and enters a relationship with Carlos (a fix-up via Betty), and in a dinner party at Carlos's apartment with Betty and Stu and another married couple named Phil and Portia. A priest, Father Tim, also figures into the mix. Paradise tracks Robbie's path toward implosion and the inability of anyone around him to stop it. But it seemed to me to be even more about the disconnectedness of a very connected circle of friends: intellectual driftwood getting close to but never quite actually touching one another.
Foley's dialogue is often very funny and sometimes genuinely profound. He captures the surface shallowness of these people and the brooding selves malingering underneath; these folks feel like refugees from Chekhov, transplanted to modern-day urban East Coast America. As such, they offer grand opportunities to their actors, and there are indeed some extraordinary performances here, such as Tom Ligon's alarmingly unsteady Father Tim, a man who drowns not just sorrows but decades of uncertainty and misdeed in wine and banter; Brandon Wolcott's haunted, unfathomably sad Robbie; Joseph Melendez's warm but still-tentative Carlos; and Robert Buckwalter's steady, pensive Stu, reminding us that still waters do indeed run deep (though we seldom see such a clear-eyed manifestation on stage). Tracey Gilbert and Jonna McElrath are a study in contrasts as, respectively, the too-candid Betty and the poseur-cum-sophisticate Portia. Bruce Barton is spot-on as Phil, loaded with faux joviality, while John Koprowski and Michael Bell do fine work in very small roles as the Pentecostal missionaries.
I haven't told you yet about Linda, Ken, and Nancy (portrayed by Lana Marks, Gregory Northrop, and Nathalie Altman). They are a family breaking apart, in the background but clearly providing subtext to Paradise's main stories; it took me a while to decide exactly how they link to the rest of the characters, and I'm not going to reveal what I finally figured out. It occurs to me, though, after having an opportunity to read Foley's script, that this aspect of the play could be communicated more clearly than it is in this production. Foley also recommends some double-casting that hasn't been done here that I think might help shore up some of the piece's thematic riddles.
Foley is a talented, articulate, interesting writer, as previous plays such as Cressida Among the Greeks and The Last Days of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, In Exile have borne out. Paradise, like them, deserves much more life after this brief run. There's a body of work being built here to be cherished and explored. This is certainly a play that's worth at least a listen.