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The Cult Play

Theatre Review by Jose Solís - February 4, 2018

Someday, someone will write a work of fiction about a cult that doesn't involve: insanity, murder and deceit. In the meantime there's more of the same in Topher Cusumano's The Cult Play, currently running at the Paradise Factory Theater in the East Village. The cult in question is led by Mama Pearl (Lori Parquet) who as the matriarch of the Northeastern Spiritual Center, has her followers practice a nameless religion that combines elements of yoga, Yoruba and crime. As Pearl pontificates about the imminent second coming of "the Goddess," she has her pupils go to the streets to find new people to convert. With nothing but fliers, and ziploc bags filled with kale leaves in hand, Pearl's Soul Scouts roam the streets looking for the signs they've been promised.

It doesn't take a detective to figure out that something's off here, and soon we discover that Pearl is hiding a secret or two that threaten the existence of her cult. As many of the characters mention a mysterious incident that led the family to flee Boston, and we learn about former members who defected, we understand that the only thing keeping the Soul Scouts together is their fear of going back to lives that ought to be much worse than being part of a murderous clan. While Cusumano understands that perverse religions only work when they appear to fulfill the needs of those who desperately crave salvation, the play never makes us grasp why these people would join this particular religion.

Mama Pearl is charming to an extent, but all her followers are aware that a lot of what she says and preaches is an act. They discuss her motivations behind her back, and we get the impression that many of them are just moochers satisfied with having a place to sleep. This makes it particularly hard to understand scenes where characters who have been acting rationally minutes before, suddenly turn into murderous beings who swear they can battle demons. The playwright gleefully combines supernatural elements and genre tropes that would work better if the play surrendered itself to its campy tendencies. Instead we get tonal shifts from scene to scene, that make an already overlong play (it ran 190 minutes including two intermissions) feel interminable.

Director Irene Lazaridis gives the play the subtlety of a C.S.I. spinoff, with obvious lighting and sound cues that become the equivalent of mustache twirling, as the twists can be seen coming from a mile away. And while the actors do their best to make sense of their characters, they end up at the service of a play that's not sure what it wants to be. The ending, which apparently was meant to be shocking, instead had audience members scratching their heads with confusion.

The play means well, but it feels unfinished, more like a treatment than a cohesive piece. There is much more that we need to know about these characters to make us want to root for them, and that would come not from even more scenes, but from treating them like people rather than archetypes. Cusumano clearly has an eye for longform storytelling, as the play reminds one more of a binge watching experience than an evening at the theater, but his characters and his scenes need to become alive. As they are in this version of The Cult Play, they're merely the body parts of the creature waiting for that electric jolt that will turn them into the things our darkest nightmares are made of.

The Cult Play
Through February 17
The Paradise Factory Theatre, 64 East 4th Street between Bowery and Second Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: