Hard to get oriented in Paradise Garden
By Lucia Frangione. Directed by Morris Ertman. An Arts Club production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Thursday, March 18. Continues until April 11
Playwright Lucia Frangione stars in this production of her new script Paradise Garden, and she has written herself one heck of an annoying role.
Watch the trailer for Paradise Garden.
Thirty-three-year-old Layla’s parents have bought half of a waterfront house on an unnamed Gulf Island. Layla and her family are Turkish Muslims. Their landlords, the folks who live in the other half of the grandly crumbling structure, are Jean and her scruffily dishy 27-year-old son, Day. Inevitably, Layla and Day succumb to romance; they are the iconic Adam and Eve in this island paradise.
But Frangione’s Eve is a figure of indulgent romantic fantasy. For starters, she’s absurdly accomplished. We find out early on that she has turned her back on her PhD in regenerative medicine to accept a scholarship to study art history at Cambridge. Soon, this budding curator is telling us that she has just sold $6 million worth of art in Basel. As played by Frangione, Layla sports a somewhat wonky British accent that’s probably supposed to add to her glamour, but instead makes her sounds as prissy as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies. And Frangione’s Layla is so buffeted by emotions that she staggers around the set having feelings all over the place. What Day sees in her is anybody’s guess.
In fact, the relationships between all of the characters are underdeveloped. Rather than talking to one another, they issue policy statements. When Day first meets Layla’s mother, Ergul, for instance, they immediately offer their positions on the differences between new cultures, such as Canada’s, and ancient ones like Turkey’s.
Maybe the characters don’t have time for more nuanced or affecting dialogue because the play is trying to cover so many subjects. Layla and her father, Mustafa, blow hard about art, in conversations that are too abstract to matter. Ergul is dying of cancer, although she vacillates between sentimental frailty—cue the tinkling piano music—and genuinely comic chirpiness. Day’s father, Keith, is a drug dealer and Mustafa works for a UN antidrug agency, but that potential conflict goes nowhere.
Getting oriented on the set is even harder than getting oriented in the script. The two families wander into one another’s garden spaces; sometimes they can see one another and sometimes, mysteriously, they can’t. (A hedge is mentioned, but never successfully established.) Because I’ve read the script, I know that Day leaps into the ocean, but you’d be hard-pressed to figure that out from director Morris Ertman’s staging, in which Day passes through a sparkling curtain and returns soaking wet.
Kevin MacDonald is charmingly straightforward as Day, and Meghan Gardiner brings a similarly effective frankness to Kaylee, Day’s sometime girlfriend. Richard Newman makes an authoritative Mustafa and Marie Stillin a dignified and witty Ergul. The urbane Michael Kopsa is miscast as the aging hippie Keith, and he is forced to wear an absurd ponytailed wig in the first act. The charming Gina Chiarelli overplays her hand and takes Jean right over the top in a superfluous scene that has Jean flirting with Mustafa.
Although it doesn’t solve the impossible challenges set by Frangione’s script, which calls for a crystal sculpture, among other things, Ted Roberts’s set is a pleasing sculpture in its own right—a gnarled, twisting tree that is, perhaps tellingly, dead.