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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Religion and love continually intersect - with often disastrous results - in David Foley's Paradise, at the Access Theater. On one hand a light romantic comedy and on the other a weighty object lesson about the beliefs and people we take for granted, this pensive and peculiar play is one for which the proper balance can never be found because no one involved seems to know what it should be.

Foley begins by populating it with four couples that reflect the various precarious aspects of love, sex, and commitment. (The play is set in New York in the mid-1990s.) One married couple with two children is on the outs; he's adulterous, she's shattered. Another is held together by constant, if prosaic, proclamations of love and a baby on the way. A third functions as an amicable business arrangement, with emotional and sexual interest between the two fleeting at best.

The fourth, Robbie (Brandon Wolcott) and Carlos (Joseph Melendez), forms during the show, and tries to make a go of it, connecting not just by their mutual friends and attraction for each other, but also their religion (they're both Catholic). But Robbie's caught in an early midlife crisis and can't pinpoint his faith or his feelings for Carlos; he's so haunted by his sister's recent suicide, and the broken home from which she and he came, that he feels he simply has no love left to give.

There's real potential in Robbie's quest for personal and spiritual understanding, but Foley sacrifices much of it for cheap sentiment and even cheaper jokes. A Catholic priest, for example, who has his own history with Carlos, is presented as essentially a vaudeville reject with the light comic touch of a caffeine-buzzed Rob Schneider. (He's gamely, if ineffectively, played by Tom Ligon.) Most of the play's more serious questions about how and why people stay together receive similarly short shrift, and are dispensed during a dinner-party scene of the type Noël Coward might have written when he wanted to appear profound.

His version, however, probably would have been funnier, and a more original soul-searching look at what makes relationships tick. This one's a rapid-fire series of buzzwords, confusions, and accusations, designed to make everyone question their feelings for everyone else. It's a hoary dramatic device, and the only real insight and legitimate laughs come from Jonna McElrath as Portia, the straight-talking, convention-defying, booze-swigging matron channeling Bette Davis. She's got the healthiest outlook on matters of the heart, and isn't keen to have anyone else operating under any illusions, either.

It's the most anyone has to work with, and she delivers a fine, funny performance; with other actors capable of matching her comic timing and specificity of character, Paradise might play as more than an arid, roundabout romantic rumination. But only Tracey Gilbert, as the Jewish mother-to-be and the would-be matchmaker who introduces Robbie and Carlos, comes close: Her offhand delivery of a few choice zingers, as well as her reaction to the final outcome of the Carlos-Robbie relationship, are grounded in a reality no one else locates.

Wolcott, especially, spends too much time playing preoccupied, and Melendez's performance amounts to little more than one-note horny vacancy. It's difficult to care much about their relationship, and thus the show: Their curiously coy courtship, and a rough sex scene later on, seem to belong in a different play altogether; the discussions about their faith and their place in it belong in this one, but neither the actors nor director Gary Shrader treat those scenes with the gravity any full-bodied exploration of this topic would require.

Instead, everything here is distractingly dreamlike, which does prove an intriguing choice as the impact of the past on our presents selves becomes a crucial aspect of the second half of the play. But certain artifacts of this approach crop up, particularly one set of three characters whose purpose remains resolutely unclear for the first two-thirds or so of the show. By the time their reason for being is obvious, they've worn out their welcome.

But their presence in Paradise eventually proves as vital as that of the play's other characters: In Foley's world, everything and everyone is important for helping us understand what makes us the friends and lovers we are. But too much of what supports that view is of the unpolished, kitchen-sink variety of writing that purports to deconstruct the mysteries of the human heart but too willingly accepts its complexities and idiosyncrasies at face value.

Blue Coyote Theater Group and Access Theater
Through February 26
Running time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
Access Theater, 380 Broadway, 4th Floor at the corner of White Street, just below Canal Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix

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