No Touching … Except Your Soul

Paradise Gained
Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
at Roy Arias Theaters/Times Square Art Center.
Written, Directed, and starring Renee McNeil

It’s Jesus versus the G-string in Renee McNeil’s ‘Paradise Gained.’ A practically medieval morality unfolds when struggling club owner Frank calls in Patrica, a new girl, to aid his struggling venue. The club is as wholesome an establishment as a strip club can be; no touching, no drugs and (most surprising of all) no frontal nudity. Patricia quickly destroys everything the club holds dear in the name of profit. The play revolves around Vanessa (McNeil), a struggling Christian dancer with big dreams, and her decision whether to leave the club for good.

McNeil succeeds in creating characters more complicated than they seem at first. Frank, the club owner, is a sincerely good man who cares about the well-being of all his dancers, but also demands sexual favors of them when they get out of line. Patricia is an unabashed Jezebel, but also understands the plight of her abused co-worker, and comforts her when she gets the chance. For a play with such an intensely black-and-white moral spectrum, McNeil remembers to fill in the gray.

But the three-dimensionality of the characters comes at a high cost. Practically every scene is pumped full of so much exposition it’s impossible to keep everything straight. McNeil is a competent actor and director, but as a writer she lacks subtlety. At one point a character actually says of Patricia ‘She represents everything bad we aren’t and have fought so hard against.’ As if it wasn’t so overtly obvious.

The standout performance of the night easily goes to Justine J Hall as Jordan, a spunky, volatile dancer whose fiery spirit is slowly crushed under the weight of addiction and abuse. Cassiopia Coyne gives fun portrayal of Alexis, a cheery young dancer who is immediately seduced by Patricia’s dark side.

If you’re not into the old-school morality play, avoid ‘Paradise Gained’ like the plague. I can only imagine how a humanist would feel when secular dancer is the first to fall, and most committed, to Patricia’s sinful ways. But if you’re ready to wrestle with such Gothic themes, and you don’t mind a little exposition, check it out.