Stage: From Ashes To Paradise

Every year, Arena Players’ artistic director Frederick DeFeis receives 150-200 scripts. That’s because, unlike some Long Island playhouses devoted exclusively to golden age retreads, Arena always leaves room for at least one world premiere.

This year, the debut was supposed to be Father’s Ashes by prolific humorist Esther Blumenfeld. However, after a reading, DeFeis realized it wasn’t yet audience ready. “The characters are good, and she has a good comic sense,” DeFeis told Pulse, “but it needs fleshing out. Sometimes you can’t tell how long a play is until everybody reads it, and this one ran just 45 minutes!”

Faced with a schedule gap, DeFeis turned from comedy to pretty heavy drama: Dean Poynor’s Paradise Key, which runs at Arena through March 21. “This one stood out for the writing and subject matter,” said DeFeis. “It takes place in the 1950s during the big polio epidemic. It was also the time when the CIA was hunting Nazi war criminals. The Germans, like Jonas Salk in America, were onto a serum. So they find this Nazi in Argentina and bring him to an interrogation center in Paradise Key, Florida. And they learn that the Nazis used women in the concentration camps as guinea pigs…”

Fun stuff. “It’s a fascinating play,” adds DeFeis, “with great conflict. Plus, it stars John Leone, who’s a mainstay at our theater (Frozen, It Had to Be You), and drama instructor Bob Budnick.” Asked how Arena, which houses both a 3,000-square-foot main stage and a 2,000-square-foot second stage, can manage doing new and challenging work, especially after the recent economic downturn, DeFeis replied, “We’ve fallen about five or ten percent, but we’re holding our own. We’ve got 300-350 subscribers, and we thrive on grants from organizations like Chase, the New York State Council on the Arts, Suffolk County—they keep us alive. And that’s how we can keep doing what we do with no adjustments. In fact, my next show is Long Day’s Journey Into Night, followed by Strindberg’s Dance of Death; and next season we’ll be doing August: Osage County and Strangers on a Train. So we’re holding the course.”

After a fairly quiet winter, here come the new Broadway shows opening on the Great White Way in March!

All About Me—Cabaret songmeister Michael Feinstein and gladiola-flinging comedienne Dame Edna team up for…God knows what.

A Behanding in Spokane—The latest from Beauty Queen of Leenane scribe Martin McDonagh. As if the title weren’t creepy enough, it stars Christopher Walken.

Looped—Valerie Harper plays movie legend and free spirit Tallulah Bankhead.

Next Fall—Off-Broadway hit about a gay relationship moves to the Helen Hayes Theatre. God, politics, society…need I say more?

The Miracle Worker—William Gibson’s classic look at the Helen Keller story stars Abigail Breslin as Helen and Alison Pill as her teacher, with Matthew Modine and House’s Jennifer Morrison playing Helen’s parents.