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Paradise Island

Reviewed by Leonard Jacobs

Presented by The New Group at The Theater @ St. Clement's, 423 W. 46th St., NYC, Jan. 23-Feb. 25.

Benjie Aerenson's "Paradise Island," just 70 minutes and one act long, will undoubtedly stretch and strain the patience of some theatregoers. The story of a mother and daughter on a wrenching, ill-fated Bahamas getaway is ankle-deep, razor-thin, and barely enhanced by two thoroughly unlikable characters.

Yet there's no denying that Aerenson has written, and Andy Goldberg has directed, a Polaroid play capturing a storyboard of startlingly realistic moments. True, Emma (Lynn Cohen), the mother, and Terri (Adrienne Shelly), the daughter, are whiny, needy, greedy, and excessively co-dependent people, but what parent-child relationship bears none of these traits at all? It's the excess that disconcerts us, yet there's also a love that underlies their dysfunction that is compelling and quite impossible to ignore.

Perhaps the fact that there are so many unanswered questions about these women makes their unattractiveness particularly hard to take. Why is Terri, a diabetic, so recklessly self-destructive? What precisely did Emma do, if anything, to make Terri that way? Why is the role of the father in the family left intentionally unexplored and undeveloped? Why does Terri shun psychological help, even after landing in a hospital nearly comatose? Why won't Emma leave her alone?

It may be Aerenson's intention, like many playwrights, to merely present the situation and then let the audience contemplate the answers for themselves. The sheer depth of the acting, however, begs for more. Cohen endows Emma with sense of tormented motherhood that is, at once, transparent and perhaps a little too real. Similarly, Shelly portrays Terri's gradual descent into physical and emotional disrepair with a finely calibrated sense of timing; even when she faints, her performance bears little hint of artifice.

The set for "Paradise Island," a series of artfully designed, movable panels and set pieces by Rob Odorisio, frame all the moments quite beautifully, aided and abetted by brightly hued costumes by Mimi O'Donnell and melancholy, introspective lighting by Russell H. Champa.

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