Charles Mee’s third and final work in his Signature Theater Company season, Paradise Park, calls to mind his previous collage-like masterpieces such as bobrauschenbergamerica and True Love. Unfortunately, despite a handful of strikingly effective moments, the production fails to measure up to the playwright’s past successes.
This latest extravaganza, directed by Daniel Fish, utilizes American theme parks as both structure and metaphor. The narrative is loosely tied together by a group of individuals who have been at the same amusement park (or perhaps it’s simultaneously every amusement park) for anywhere between one day and ten years. Among the denizens of this questionable environment are newcomer Benny (William Jackson Harper), roller skating Midwestern beauty Ella (Laurie Williams), tour guide Vikram (Satya Bhabha), ventriloquist Edgar with pal Mortimer (Alan Semok), oddball Jorge (Paul Mullins), and a family composed of father Morton (Christopher McCann), mother Nancy (Veanne Cox), and daughter Darling (Vanessa Aspillaga).
As the characters wander the grounds of the park — getting lost in the woods, engaging in various songs and dances, and playing assorted games such as a hilarious fruitcake toss — they engage in often lengthy speeches on topics such as love and regret. The most moving of these is a monologue delivered first by Cox and later repeated by McCann, which details the fate of the couple’s other daughter and the reason they came to the amusement park in the first place.
Additional highlights include Jorge’s omelet-making seduction of Darling, Benny’s awkward attempts to get closer to Ella, and a brilliant and unnerving monologue from pizza delivery man Bob (Gian Murray Gianino) about murder and forgiveness. This bizarre sequence literally stops all the other action on the stage, and if you think Bob wandered in from another play, you’d be right. The same role and speech are also found in Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica and Summertime, and remain as effective here as in productions I’ve seen of the other two plays.
Mee traffics in archetypes, occasionally importing various bits of Americana and showbiz into his work. For example, Edgar is meant to invoke legendary ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whose more famous dummies included Mortimer Snerd. Semok is rather amusing in Edgar’s routines with Mortimer, whom he initially discovers in a trash can; as the show goes on, he becomes increasingly adept at manipulating the dummy with less obvious mouth movements when Mortimer is speaking.
Unfortunately, the various plot threads don’t interconnect as seamlessly as they should, and several stretches of the nearly two hour intermissionless work drag. The cast also proves to be a bit uneven. Cox, who usually does such superlative work, seems a trifle too melodramatic here. Aspillaga also seems too forced at times, and Bhaba never really makes much of an impression in an admittedly underwritten part.
David Zinn’s long, narrow set includes such iconic amusement park items as a bumper car, a cotton candy machine, and a blow-up castle. The stage gets messier and messier as the play goes on, with liquids, foodstuffs, and prizes dropped from the ceiling adding to the visual chaos. Multicolored bulbs line the set on either side of the stage and across the top, lending a circus atmosphere to Mark Barton’s lighting design. Joshua Thorson’s video projections — which at times line up with the stage action and at other moments seem completely divorced from it — are only partially effective, and at times shot in a way that may cause some audience members to suffer from motion sickness.
Mee’s goal with the production seems to be to explore the sense of escapism that entertainments such as amusement parks seem to promise, but never really provide. When a ticket seller asks Benny what he wants at the top of the show, the young man blurts out, “I guess I want to escape from my daily life, you know, from the abyss of total meaninglessness that I know lies just beneath my feet at every moment.” But the ticket seller really only meant to find out if his customer wanted “the family pass or the individual.” The core idea here is a strong one, but it’s only partially realized in this production.