Daniel Fish’s staging of "Paradise Lost" swallows this powerful depression era drama by the great Clifford Odets into a yawning abyss of negative space, silence, postmodern distancing techniques, and pretentious theatrical effects. It is disappointingly reminiscent of the many pre-Paulus A.R.T. productions in which a rich script was delivered into the hands of brilliant actors, who were then painfully lead astray by a director determined to superimpose his own avant garde vision onto a classic, completely obscuring it rather than casting it in new light.
It’s clear why the play was chosen for this season. "Paradise Lost" was written by a poetic revolutionary during a time in which global economical disaster rippling from Wall Street was forcing Americans to question the very capitalist system that offered a cherished standard of living to the fortunate and a dream of an attainable-feeling glamour and comfort to those it had left out. Odets’ script explores the loss of the opportunities and dreams promised by a wealthier America. His tragic Gordon family plummets with the stock market, freezes up in denial trying to wait things out, and then finally, humbled, strives to come to terms with a new America whose playing field is level â€” but mired in tears and blood. It’s a powerful play, Odets’ most prideful effort, and one that he believed would bring audiences closer together and make them glad to be alive.
Fish, sadly, does not trust the script to speak for itself. Rather, he manufactures his own tone and set of symbols into which the play is caged. His production is neither set during the Great Depression nor in the present. References to the two periods battle one another as the audience searches for some sort of location. We’re given a set that is part family estate and part warehouse. A large kitchen table, the play’s central icon, sits in the middle of a vast and mostly bare stage, between a stack of wooden pallets to its far left and, to its right, an idealized statue of a man running, suggesting one of the play’s protagonists, Ben Gordon (the charismatic Hale Appleman), a former Olympic runner.
The Gordon family, their neighbors, and associates, spend the entire (nearly three hour) play (broken into three acts with intermissions) sitting at this table, apart from when they mill or sprawl around it. As they mumble to one another, they rarely face the audience and often avoid one another’s faces as well. Behind them hangs a gigantic screen onto which is projected some thematic television clips, some family movies seemingly set in an alternate production, some footage of talking heads from news programs over which character dialogue is sometimes (absurdly) dubbed, and some other bizarre and distracting effects that wretch the play away from its slightly poeticized realism into the realm of surrealistic collage.
If you drink some caffeine, crane your neck, squint your eyes, and ignore the strange meta-narratives, you might pick up the story of Leo (David Chandler) and Clara (Sally Wingert) Gordon, an upper middle class family struggling to hold together their family in light of the dying of their business. Their grown-up children are languishing. Their son Ben, the former runner, gets married, but with no money or prospects his new life is off to a sluggish start. Their younger son, Julie (T. Ryder Smith), who in other days may actually have been groomed as the family’s new patriarch, wilts into depression. Their daughter Pearl (Therese Plaehn) does nothing but obsessively practice the piano (or in this production, the anachronistic keyboard synthesizer with earphones to hide the instruments’ haunting effects) dreaming that she and her (absent) musician fianc© are just waiting for their big breaks. Also present are their doddering friend Gus Michaels (the great Thomas Derrah), a tragic clown, and their furnace man, a radical who lost his sons in the Great War and now looks only to ideology for comfort. This collection of grim fallen angels are poked and prodded, tempted and challenged by a series of friends and associates (most notably by Ben’s gangsterish buddy Kewpie played excellently by Karl Bury), until they must step out of their torpor and into the frightening new world.
These characters are well drawn and this production’s actors seem well cast. But it’s hard to tell. I spent most of this play trying to get my bearings and the remainder waiting for at least some sound and fury.
Far from in paradise, I mostly just found myself lost.
"Paradise Lost" runs through March 20 at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square.