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There is trouble in the fictional well-to-do suburban paradise of Shady Hills, where American novelist and short-story writer John Cheever (1912-82) set so many of his ironic and, at times, tawdry tales of ambitious middle-class Americans in headlong pursuit of the American Dream, with all its bells and whistles. Many of these earnest upwardly mobile suburbanites finally hit the wall of self-doubt or, having attained all of their material goals, surrendered to boredom or dabbled in adultery or succumbed to fantasy.
Ostensibly happy marriages became cruel charades when one or more of the partners betrayed the marital vows. Go-getters, having already gotten more than they will ever need, indulged their fantasies, sexual and otherwise. As long as we don't see ourselves in the funhouse mirrors that Cheever holds up for our amusement, it is all great fun.
A Paradise It Seems: The Short Stories of John Cheever, artfully adapted for the stage and deftly directed for Wordshed Productions by Matthew Spangler, plunged the audience, ready or not, headfirst into "good life" of Shady Hills, with its pool parties and cocktails. This no-frills production, which played May 22-June 1 in Studio 6 in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, paid considerable comic and dramatic dividends, thanks to Spangler's witty and stylish adaptations of "The Swimmer," "The Enormous Radio," and "The Five-Forty-Eight" and crisp comic characterizations by an all-star cast.
Spangler, who previously invaded Cheever territory last year with Shady Hills, learned some important lessons. This time, he uses segments from "The Swimmer" as a unifying device and has all three male cast members (Chris Chiron, Matthew Spangler, and Jordan Smith) take turns playing Neddy Merrill, whose whimsical decision to "swim" home from a Sunday afternoon pool party — by swimming from backyard pool to backyard pool through the neighborhood — has unexpected results.
Chiron, Spangler, and Smith each provided a nice cameo of Neddy, who pays a massive emotional price for indulging his whimsy. Chiron was also good in "The Five-Forty-Eight" as a piggy philandering business executive whose sexual indiscretion in the city with a revenge-minded coworker (Sarah Kocz) threatens to follow him home to the suburbs — a la the movie Fatal Attraction — and destroy the idyllic existence he and his wife (Katja Hill) enjoy.
Spangler and Hannah Blevins were also excellent as Jim and Irene Prescott in "The Enormous Radio." When the Prescotts replace their worn-out radio with a swanky new model, they get more than the Metropolitan Opera on the tuner; they get snippets of their neighbors' most intimate conversations (voiced by Katja Hill and Jordan Smith)!
Just like Chris Chiron, Jordan Smith, and Matthew Spangler, Hannah Blevins, Katja Hill, and Sarah Kocz each created a nice assortment of sharply etched suburbanites to people Cheever's ironic stories of middle-class life and make them truly memorable. Spangler's clever and witty script provided a number of nice cameo roles, and the cast polished them to gemlike perfection, performing brilliantly on scenic designer Rob Hamilton's striking minimalist set.