Laura Maria Censabella’s “Paradise” – Lost At The Matrix

By Ernest Kearney  —  Playwright Laura Maria Censabella has gathered more awards and honors than there is room to list in this review – IRNE Award for Best New Play, the Geri Ashur Prize in Screenwriting, two daytime Emmys – and a bunch more.

Her play Paradise, having closed a successful run at the Odyssey has now moved to the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Boulevard for a limited extension.

Paradise is set in the classroom of a neglected inner-city high school in the South Bronx.  Yasmeen (Maral Milani) is a shy young Yemeni-American, a devout Muslim who has recently discovered a passion for biology and a driving fascination with neuroscience.

She has sought out her biology instructor Dr. Guy Royston (Jeff Marlow) to ask him to reconsider the grade given to her latest test—the first for which she didn’t score a 100%—explaining that she needs to maintain her 4.0 average to qualify for a desperately needed scholarship.

Royston, a refugee from the Southern Bible Belt who escaped with his atheism intact, has fallen from grace in the scientific community for ruining a ten-year study of a Columbia University colleague, who had stolen the affections of the woman he loved. This act of vandalism lead to his dismissal from the university and condemned him to the hell of public-school academia.

Initially the gruff and embittered teacher wants nothing to do with the persistent young student from his class—whose name he can’t even remember—but slowly, impressed by her intellectual grasp of the science as well as her enthusiasm, he is won over and agrees to help her in conducting a scientific study, which promises to assure her the scholarship: an exploration of the neural mechanisms of first-love among teenagers.

Prior to penning Paradise, Censabella researched developmental neuroscience for two years, then submitted the finished play to members of Columbia’s science department for review.

As the drama unfolds, the playwright provides the expected clashes arising between individuals from two such distinct backgrounds: the cultural clash, the religious clash.

The trouble for me was sitting there in the audience feeling as though it wasn’t the work of a skilled dramatist laying out a narrative that I was watching, but a couturier cutting fabrics from precise pattern pieces.

We are given the characters’ back stories, Yasmeen’s somewhat more elaborate than Royston’s, but both come across as though the playwright is tossing bread crumbs to pigeons. Remove the back stories completely and I doubt the loss would have any consequence on the play.

The playwright has presented us with two characters we want to see succeed.  Audiences always root for the underdogs, for which ample opportunity is provided, inundating them beneath torrents of “feel-good” which flows through the work with the naturalness of the Panama Canal’s locks.

The writing is intelligent, crystal sharp and shows craft, but I found depth wanting, with a story that seemed not to “unfold,” but to be arranged.   Censabella has the talent and skills to employ in leading her audience along the paths she wishes and enticing them to the emotional responses which she intends.  But there is the inescapable suspicion that these are not expressions swelling forth in a cathartic release, but an exchange invoked, comparable to that of a cheerleading chant.

This nagging sense of shallowness is reflected in the two leads as well.

“Wide-eyed” comes across as Milani’s approach to playing her character and she has an abundant supply to lavish on the audience.

Marlow manages better with his performance, but not by much.  The fault being even a good actor is powerless when given a silhouette to play in place of a fuller-realized character.

Here is an example of the lack of development in the characters; before the play opens Yasmeen has experienced an intense anxiety attack that caused her to completely falter on an important test, which is the catalyst setting Censabella’s drama in motion.  During the course of the play Yasmeen suffers another emotional seizure in the presence of Royston.  It explodes on stage and it is startling.

For a young shelter girl trembling on the abyss of radical changes that threaten every aspect of her life to be overcome by her emotions is understandable.  But it is a boom without the heightened tension included in watching a lit fuse slowly burning its way towards the explosive powder.

There is no fuse to Yasmeen’s breakdown; there is no “trembling” in Milani’s performance, no sense of the cultural tightrope her character is traversing, no vulnerability in her playing.  While Censabella is to be commended for the presence of a sympatric Muslim character in her piece, at times that character comes across like Super girl in a Hijab; knocking off volumes of biological science nightly, acing tests in a subject she knew nothing about on her first day of class and bridging the cultural gap between the West and the Islamic world in a single bound.

Director Vicangelo Bulluck has polished the production to a high shine, but beneath the shine there seems little of substance, while his decision to encumber the play with extended blackouts for unnecessary set dressing is questionable.

Jeff Rowlings’ classroom set is nice.  But “nice” is not the term that jumps to mind when I think inner city high school.

Censabella has covered her theatrical canvas with issues of great import, the conflicts of cultures, the struggle between religion and science, the nature of love, faith’s demands over one’s ambitions, the hope for redemption, the difficulties women face in seeking scientific careers. But sadly, closer inspection reveals Paradise is a “paint by numbers” piece.

♦     ♦     ♦

Playing:

Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays
thru 3/31/2019

Venue:

Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046

For Schedule and Reservations:

Phone: 323-960-7724

Or

Click HERE

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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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