Do chimpanzees fall in love? Can human couples really stay madly in love after many years, and can a brain scan prove it? Will theatergoers still love digital theater now that in-person theater is back?
These are some of the questions that pop up in “Paradise,” Laura Maria Censabella lovely and enlightening two-character play that explores love in intriguing and sundry ways that you won’t see coming. And that’s not just because it’s an audio production, launching the 2021-2022 season of L.A. Theatre Works.
Dr. Guy Royston (Jeff Marlow), a once-respected scientist who wrote a book entitled “What’s Love Got to Do With It: The Science of Romantic Love, the Brain and Evolution,” is now unhappily teaching first year biology in a poorly rated public high school in the Bronx. As we eventually learn, love caused his downfall: He was discovered sabotaging a colleague’s lab experiment as revenge for his having stolen his girlfriend.
Into his classroom trots one of his students, 17-year-old Yasmeen Al-Hamadi (Medalion Rahimi), pleading with him to let her do over the quiz that she failed. She is normally a straight A student, and needs to keep it that way: She wants to study science at Columbia (Dr. Royston’s former employer), and has her eye on a scholarship reserved for an American girl of Middle Eastern descent. We eventually learn why she failed the test: She had learned the night before that her family had arranged a marriage for her with a fellow young immigrant from Yemen named Samir. “They caught me off guard. I thought…I was hoping…that it might come later…after I finished college.”
“Paradise” does not proceed predictably. Along the way, both Yasmeen and Dr. Royston learn from each other. They wind up collaborating on a scientific experiment testing the neurological effects of first love, using the other students in the school as their test subjects. Yasmeen also schools her teacher on Islam, correcting misconceptions, and in effect sharing with him her love of her religion. (At one point she recites in Arabic a description from the Qur’an about paradise.) In the playwright’s well-constructed ending, they are both tested . You could say each is faced with an ethical dilemma, but in a real – and fresh — way, what’s most tested is their love.
Commissioned and developed by The Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project, “Paradise” has had several fully staged productions since 2016, including one in 2019 by the same two cast members. I normally don’t seek out audio plays, and relying so heavily on these two actors’ voices (one overly jejune, the other cartoonishly cynical) without the moderating effect of gesture, expression and nonverbal interaction, threatened to undermine the nuances of the script.
But one thing that the pandemic has taught us is what the world of theater offers beyond our local stages. L.A. Theatre Works bills itself as the world’s leading producer of audio theater. It’s produced some 600 such plays over the decades. It’s time I take a listen.
Photograph by Ed Krieger of the 2019 production at the Odyssey Theatre