nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 20, 2011
Alisha Silver's new play Paper Dragon, which is receiving its world premiere as part of NyLon Fusion Collective's current season, is an often interesting but ultimately somewhat muddled work about two twenty-something siblings living together in New York City. Ronnie, the sister, is gay, and is involved with two young women who share the household with them—Bot, who is herself involved with another woman who is being deported (and so Bot is following her to Canada); and Ellie, who is dating a buttoned-up yuppie businessman-type named Jayson, but for whom Ronnie clearly harbors feelings that are, perhaps, reciprocated. We never learn what Ronnie does for a living, but her personal life sure is complicated.
The brother, Walter, currently has one leg in a cast and hobbles about on crutches. He spends his days in the apartment, where he thinks a lot about Andy, their other brother, who recently died. Walter is interested in Jesse, Andy's roommate and/or girlfriend (I was never clear on this point).
Walter comes across as a decent, intelligent, caring human being; as portrayed by Justin Maruri, in the production's finest performance, he earns our empathy and seems to be the play's protagonist as well. About half of the play's scenes depict Walter's efforts to cope with the spirit of his brother, who is haunting him, and to court Jesse. Silver's portrait of Walter is the most balanced and interesting in the piece, filled with fun and tantalizing details that help us understand who he is; his obsession with good food, for example, is both humorous and realistic.
Surprisingly, the main women characters in this play—Ronnie, Ellie, and Bot—are rendered much less vivid and likeable by the playwright. Ellie and Bot spend most of their stage time battling bitchily with one another or talking about sex or substances; both seem deeply damaged in spite of their young age, reliant on alcohol or their own sexy appearances to feel happy or secure in themselves. Ronnie, meanwhile, seems reasonably mature and centered, but for reasons that are never explained she is clearly involved in untenable romantic relationships with Bot, Ellie, and probably others. And she seems to be entirely distanced from whatever close relationship Walter and Andy enjoyed (though Walter and Ronnie appear to be quite close).
All of which points to the main problem with Silver's script: though it is crowded with character and incident, it's often very confusing and frequently fails to make much sense. It took me half of the play's running time to suss out the relationships among the characters—for example, at first I thought that Andy was Walter's ex-lover and that Jesse and Andy were siblings (the fact that both Maruri and Caroline Bloom, who plays Ronnie, both have dark hair and tanned complexions while Joseph Schommer (Andy) and Meghan Jones (Jesse) are both tall, thin, and pale made this even harder to puzzle out). There are many lapses in logic in the script: in the final scenes, Ellie is supposedly going to a wedding with Jayson; so why does he come to pick her up dressed in golf clothes? And why isn't he wearing a coat? (Characters tell us more than once that there's a raging snowstorm outside.) And why is Ellie going to be working a shift at her restaurant after the wedding—wouldn't she have asked for the night off? Stuff like this pops up throughout Paper Dragon and gets in the way of the story Silver is trying to tell us, making it harder for us to comprehend the themes she's hoping to communicate.
And there's a lengthy scene in the middle that sets up the enigmatic title of this play that never gets resolved. It involves a DVD that Andy left for Jesse, which she discovers after his death. Like the archetypal Chekhovian gun, it sits on Ronnie and Walter's dining room table, keeping us in suspense for the explosion it will no doubt set off. But none comes.
Paper Dragon is directed by Lori Kee, who has worked with set designer Brian T. Saxton, lighting designer Lee Terry, and sound designer Karen Derby to create a vividly naturalistic world for the play. A good deal of effort and talent has been expended on this production. And I think Silver has compelling things to say about her generation; but there's too much muddle and confusion in this play for that message to resonate with any clarity.