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Paradise Factory, New York

The Cult Play
2.0Reviewer's Rating

“Welcome to the sanctuary. Please turn off your cellphones and put your coats and bags under the chairs.” That is the greeting that soft-voiced and bohemian-dressed woman meets you with upon entering the theater space. (This is assuming, of course, that you can find the hidden basement theater). This semi-immersive, slightly uncertain opening sets the spiritual, but disjointed tone for this new production. Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play delves into the world of cults and merges it with modern technology and social media, to varying success. Mama Pearl (Lori Parquet) leads the Soul Scouts, luring in young, lost children with promises of the Goddess. But off the bat, Mama Pearl and her lover Papa Jaye (John Lenartz) are tense – a former Scout, Charlie Bear (Ariel Estrada), has escaped and with him, important paperwork. As Mama Pearl tries to both stop Charlie Bear and tighten her grip on the remaining scouts, the other cultists find their world changing. Spiraling fear, questions of faith, and personal vulnerability permeate all the scouts’ storylines, including romantic tensions, mental illness, and a mysterious past in Boston. Along the walls images and video flash, bringing the viral into the theater space itself.

The Cult Play starts strong, with Lori Parquet as engaging of an actress as Mama Pearl is apparently a leader. In this role, it is all about the voice, and the velvety tones of the cult leader resonate her charm, her passion, and eventually her rage and loss. Across the board, the actors are strong and are the true selling point to the production: Clover’s (Layan Elwazini) beatific smile, Papa Jaye’s machismo posturing and unfailing loyalty, Nora’s crumbling certainty, and Mae’s (Stacey Raymond) hardened charm. The boys (Josh Moser and Oscar Klausner) stumble into moments of authentic emotion, engaging and real in their chaos and immaturity. However, they can sometimes read as stilted, especially unfortunate for two rather meaty roles.

And yet, even the talent of the cast cannot make up for a play which desperately needs more editing down. There were positive elements to the play, including its twist on the cult drama, with its look towards social media and viral narcissism as well as its small jokes or revelations subtly dropped in. There are some fantastic beats, both comedic and story driven, which are sprinkled throughout the show. Short dialogue and timing are key for turning these moments into something special.

This directly contrasts the show’s weakest points: its tendency towards heavy-handedness and long-winded dramatizing. And the biggest issue of all: its 3-hour runtime with two intermissions. The show drags and even the positive elements become trying as exhaustion overwhelms the audience. The play tries to jam in every possible trauma of cult life, use ongoing technical gimmicks (which with blown audio does more harm than good), and give every character a full storyline which climax and resolve disjointedly.
Mama Pearl might draw you in, but the overwrought runtime brings the punishment promised for dormant souls against the Goddess.

  • Drama
  • By Topher Cusumano
  • Director: Irene Lazaridis
  • Cast includes: Lori Parquet, John Lenartz, Elise Stone, Layan Elwazini, Josh Moser, Oscar Lausner, Ariel Estrada, and Stacey Raymond
  • Paradise Factory, New York
  • Until 17 February 2018

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