Gerald DiPego’s ‘154 and Paradise’ offers a multitude of mystery

Mistress (Ivy Vahanian) and wife (Leslie Story) worry as James Henny's (Bill Egan) stress level reaches the breaking point. Janelle Odair
Mistress (Ivy Vahanian) and wife (Leslie Story) worry as James Henny’s (Bill Egan) stress level reaches the breaking point.
Janelle Odair

A fatal accident at the top of Camino Cielo. A group of people proclaiming innocence. And an examiner who seems to know a little too much about everybody involved. This is the world that screenwriter and playwright Gerald DiPego has created for the intriguing world-premiere play “154 and Paradise” that opens tonight at Center Stage Theater.

The play, the latest production from Peter Frisch of the Producing Unit, combines Pirandello with the Twilight Zone, and marks the first major collaboration between the writer and director.

The mysterious Examiner (Rich Hoag) uncovers the "truth" in Gerald DiPego's new play "154 and Paradise."
The mysterious Examiner (Rich Hoag) uncovers the “truth” in Gerald DiPego’s new play “154 and Paradise.”
Seven characters who have had contact with the deceased Mr. James Henry are gathered on stage, and an examiner (Richard Hoag) goes through each of their timelines to figure out what happened. Some of the characters know the victim, but one older lady is just completely baffled why she’s there at all. However, she too is connected in ways we cannot fathom at the beginning. The play is half suspense, half philosophical, says Mr. DiPego, whose Hollywood résumé contains the screenplays for “Phenomenon,” with John Travolta; “The Forgotten,” with Julianne Moore; and most recently “Words and Pictures,” with Juliette Binoche and Clive Own.

The play came about after Mr. DiPego got into the theater community in Santa Ynez, not just to put on some of his short works— like he did in 2011— but to study acting for the first time. His teacher turned out to be Peter Frisch, who was in the process of leaving his executive position at the Granada Theatre and focusing on heading up his own production company, The Producing Unit. When Mr. Frisch read an early draft of “154 and Paradise,” he knew he wanted to premiere it.

“I was stunned,” says Mr. Frisch, who has a history of producing on the East Coast and has worked with major playwrights. The play survived the audition process of 40 potential productions Mr. Frisch and his two partners were looking at for the 2015 season.

“I remember us looking around after reading it out loud with this look on our faces, like wow, this is really good. A lot of plays can have great first acts, but peter off in the second. But in this one the second is even better.

“The metaphoric world of the play is spooky and elusive,” Mr. Frisch continues. “This was a place out of time and reality and yet resembled our reality. There was a kind of abstraction about it, and way later you get to find out why.”

The cast features Leslie Story, Ivy Vahanian, Bill Egan, Kathy Marden, Ian Cummings, John Brindle, Edward Romine and Katherine Bottoms. Several of the cast starred in The Producing Unit’s 2014 production of “Time Stands Still.” Peter Frisch made sure that Mr. DiPego was part of the casting.

“I feel very fortunate that Peter is directing this,” says Mr. DiPego. “I don’t know how to label him, but he’s an all-encompassing director. He designed the staging. He’s not a method director, he’s not a ‘natural’ director— which can be hell on writers!— he’s just a professional and creative director.

“The examiner’s aim is to get at the complete truth, and that’s a hard thing,” Mr. DiPego continues. “The complete truth has emotions and thoughts . . . The play is really about the power of human contact and the effect we have on people.”

“154 and Paradise”
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday,
8 p.m. Thursday-Friday January 29-30,
5 and 9 p.m. Saturday January 31,
3 p.m. Sunday February 1
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo Mall
Cost: $11.50-$29
Information: 963-0408, www.centerstagetheater.org

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