Odets' play rambles in many directions, and he doesn't tie up all the loose ends - some characters appear in one important scene and then just seem to vanish, and situations follow each other in a seemingly random fashion. In other words, it looks a lot like life, although the characters speak in that elevated version of 1930s vernacular that no real person ever spoke.
What Odets is creating here is a microcosm of middle-class lives in a time when catastrophic illness, destitution and death are lurking in the corners. For some reason, the setting is described simply as "an American town," but his characters are clearly Odets' preferred middle and working-class New Yorkers. The play was not a success in its initial New York production, probably because it struck too close to home for many theatergoers.
The core of Paradise Lost is the Gordon family. Leo (Norman Aronovic) the father is an intellectual who designs handbags for a company he owns with his partner and business manager, Sam Katz (Bernie Cohen). Unlike the more pragmatic, even ruthless Sam, Leo sees himself as above politics, refusing to vote because "one side is as bad as the other." (Sound familiar?)
Leo's wife, Clara (Martha Karl), is doing her best to keep the house and family from falling apart. They have three grown children: Ben (Jason Lott), who won Olympic medals for his running skills but has no idea of how to deal with working for a living; Julie (David Ruffin), a bank clerk in failing health; and Pearl (Tiffany Givens), who devotes herself to the piano.
A lot of things happen in the course of the play, as feckless Ben marries Libby Michaels (Sara Barker), daughter of everybody's best pal Gus (Joe Cronin), and runs into trouble with his old pal Kewpie (H. Alan Hoffman), the neighborhood tough guy; Mr. Pike (John C. Bailey), a rabble-rouser from an old American family, periodically wanders into the house and spouts off; and Sam airs the grievances of his marriage to frustrated Bertha (Rebecca A. Herron). Eventually, the Depression catches up with the Gordons and their fragile, self-described "middle-class paradise."
Aronovic comes across as the beating heart of the play: his large eyes obviously mirror the pain and anger Leo is forced to endure. Karl conveys steadfast, silent strength that can burst into fierce protectiveness of her family. Cronin gives a fine, rueful performance as a man who can step back from the daily struggle to see his life more clearly. And Lott is dead-on, both in delineating the cockiness of a man who has never had to struggle for anything and his sleek hair and features - as if he stepped out of a 1930s magazine ad.
American Century Theatre
Photo: Jeff Bell