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A CurtainUp Review
Paradise Park

I guess I want to escape from my daily life, you know,
from the abyss of total meaninglessness
that I know lies just beneath my feet at every moment,
so that, I feel nothing so much as unbearable hopeless ness and despair
all the time
at some unconscious level,
if I don't distract myself with something
—Benny, replying to Jorge's question as to why he's come to the amusement park.
Veanne Cox in Paradise Park
Veanne Cox in Paradise Park
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
With Paradise Park, Charles Mee concludes his season as resident playwright at the Signature Theater. The first two plays followed his half and half construction method: Building half the play out of one or more classical texts and then, as Mee explains it, "letting the other half just come out of thin air."Thus Iphiginea 2:0 was half Euripides, half Mee; Queens Boulevard was half Kottayan Tampuran's The Flower of Good Fortune and half Mee's moving it into the contemporary multicultural world of Jackson Heights.

Like True Love, my first exposure to Mee's fancyful crazy quilt approach to playwriting at the Zipper Factory, Paradise Park is directed by Daniel Fish. As in that play and the bouncy Queens Boulevard, choreographer Peter Pucci is on hand to enliven things. To further enhance Mee's concept of taking us into the funhouse world of Coney Island and Disney World add the following: an actor who roller skates rather than walks, another named Edgar (as the once famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen) who rescues Mortimer (as in one time star ventriloquist Bergen's dummy Mortimer Snerd) from his Beckett-like existence in a trashcan, some lively videography (including a water ballet featuring swim star Esther Williams), a stage filled with amusement park props and a cast in tune with the playwright's brand of philosophical whimsy.

There's something to be said for Mee's vision of amusement parks like Coney Island as distinctly American destinations for people seeking a few extraordinary hours away from their ordinary lives. But when Mr. Mee pulls a play completely "out of thin air" the resultant pleasures are a bit, well, thin. The theatrical collage he pieces together is as dark as it is whacky but it ends up being unbalanced. It's plenty whacky but it's not really hilariously funny since it's dominated by the darkness embodied by a family that could have wandered into Mee's amusement park from Edward Albee's The American Dream, The Sandbox or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Things starts out amusingly enough with a fun house beginning that finds Benny (William Jackson Harper), a sort of American everyman knocking at the Paradise Park box office window and being greeted by a group of people who, like him, came for fun and adventure— some staying on for years. Benny's greeters include the roller skating Ella (Laurie Williams) from Iowa who introduces the hope for romance into his amusement park visit. Edgar and Mortimer (Alan Semok) represent a different and somewhat poignant pairing. For an out of left field — or rather from the aisle to the stage — there's a pizza man (Gian Murray Gianno) unlike any Domino's is likely to send to your door.

Mee moves evenhandedly from one little story to another, regularly bringing everyone together on stage. But , the strongest impact is made by Morton (Christopher McCann) and Nancy (Veanne Cox) as the no longer happily married couple who've brought their daughter Darling (Vanessa Spillaga) here to avoid repeating an earlier family tragedy.

No one does maniacal neurotics better than Cox and Mee has written a role made to order for her expertize in this mode. She's found the perfect husband to hate in Christopher McCann. Vanessa Aspillaga demonstrates her skill for doing funny and touching as the daughter who feels her parents are killing her with their attempts to undo the mistakes in their lives and in raising her. Perhaps this piece of Mee's crazy quilt seems more prominent than the rest, because these characters have been given some of the play's best dialogue — like three trenchant biographical monologues that start with Morton's "You think when you start out all you want to do is get a job, support your family. . .the next thing you know you've been sucked into a whole world that seems entirely alien to you. . . never what you had in mind at all." This is followed by Nancy's dashed hopes lament about how everything you thought was possible turned out not to be, and concludes with Darling's devastating death wish. Darling's grim wish notwithstanding, she ends up in a fantasy balloon castle with a man old enough to be her father (Paul Mullins).

Under director Daniel Fish's direction the dances and other shifts from the individual stories to group scenes serve as multiple intermissions for this two-hour nonstop fantasia. Still, for all the imaginative melding of mini stories, visual images, music and dancing, there are too many dead spots to make the two hours whiz by, and the patches in this collage feel basted rather than tightly stitched together.

Iphiginea 2.0
Queens Boulevard True Love-not at the Signature, but directed by Daniel Fish and choreographed by Peter Pucci

Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Daniel Fish
Choreography by Peter Pucci
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga (Darling), Satya Bhabha (Vikram), Veanne Cox (Nancy), Gian-Murray Gianino (Bob), William Jackson Harper (Benny), Christopher McCann (Morton), Paul Mullins (Jorge), Alan Semok (Edgar Mortimer) and Laurie Williams (Ella),
: Bill Schimmel (Accordion-- also music direction and arrangements)
Scenic design: David Zinn
Costume design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting design: Mark Barton
Sound design: Elizabeth Rhodes
Video design: Joshua Thorson.
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours, without intermission
Signature Theatre/Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street (between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues)
From 2/12/08; opening 3/02/08; closing 4/06/08.
Tues at 7pm, Wed to Sat at 8pm, Sat & Sun at 2pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/27/08 press preview

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