Paradise Restored: Mixed praise for The Agency's 'Paradise Lost'

March 12, 2012

Nothing about The Agency Theatre Collective's production of Paradise Lost by Clifford Odets reminded me that I'd seen the play at Timeline in 2007--it took a wide-awake friend to do that. I suspect that's because in 2007, a play about the Great Depression seemed quaint, whereas in 2012 it feels, to coin a phrase, ripped from the headlines. Despite significant differences in the quality of production and performance, and not in this company's favor, the experience of seeing the current version of the show isn't going to be one you'll forget.

Timeline's version of the play focused on the father and mother of the Gordon family, who watch all their security evaporate as their financial position diminishes. But The Agency puts its attention on the people who seem to be failures from the outset, as if they were harbingers of what's to come for the whole family: the golden boy who can't actually grow up and function (like #1 son in Death of a Salesman); the brilliant boy who's dying (like #1 son in Long Day's Journey Into Night); the frustrated stay-at-home spinster sister; and Golden Boy's wife and father-in-law, one of whom sells herself for money and the other of whom can never bear to. Apropos: This play is a shouted reply to the money-doesn't-buy-happiness crowd, demonstrating that without money even mere contentment can be impossible to achieve.

One fascinating insight from this production is that Clifford Odets is the person to whom David Mamet owes his style of profane lyricism. Neither playwright fears going over the top, and both at their best can combine real characters with real political positions. Of course, at their worst each falls into the crudest kind of caricature and cant, which I tolerate much better in Odets than in Mamet because at least Odets stayed on the left.

Let us deal as gently as possible with the production, which is unwisely staged across a long narrow space so that the audience has to follow the action by swinging heads back and forth as if at Wimbledon; which unwisely casts a woman in the role of the sexy dangerous man, thus completely undercutting the sexual tension which is so much a part of Odets' work; which takes a period in American history full of great folk and protest songs and manages to pick two (one to begin the play and one to end it) that are tuneless and unrecognizable; and which sets the final scene in contemporary America without making the change forceful enough to be recognizable--it just looks like a mistake that there are Home Depot moving boxes on the floor.

But let us now praise famous men, or at least young ones: semi-new companies like The Agency have the ambition and the drive to stage difficult large-cast works that have fallen off some larger theaters' radar screens, and the energy to create a new theater space called The Charnel House out of an old funeral parlor at Fullerton and Kimball, in a neighborhood whose name I don't even know, literally stretching the boundaries of Chicago theater. Where would we be without them?