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Theater Review - Ship of fools

Chopped Liver in Paradise at Jewish Theatre of the South

With her world-premiere comedy Chopped Liver in Paradise, currently playing at Jewish Theatre of the South, Atlanta playwright Vynnie Meli positions herself as an heir to Neil Simon. Unfortunately.

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Chopped Liver in Paradise demonstrates both the relentless, assembly-line quality of Simon's wisecracking comedies and the self-absorption of more angsty plays like Jake's Women. Meli starts with a clever set-up — two soccer moms trying to escape their suburban desperation on a cruise ship — but Chopped Liver in Paradise tries too hard to wring laughter and meaning from the premise.

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Sharon (Pamela Gold), devastated by a recent divorce, arrives in their stateroom ready to "detox" and have fun: "I signed us up for a seaweed wrap!" Retorts Rita (Agnes Harty): "What am I, sushi?" Rita conceals a midlife crisis so debilitating she can't enjoy herself or even leave the room. We also follow perky young honeymooners Brad and Annie (Chris Moses and Megan Hayes), whose newlywed passion and innocence contrasts with the hard lessons Sharon and Rita have learned about marital realities.

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Harty usually proves to be one of Atlanta's most effervescent actresses, but the role of Rita stifles her like a wet blanket. It's hard to generate much sympathy for a character whose worst problem amounts to: "I'm busy but I'm bored." With her non-stop gripes about the vacation itself, Chopped Liver in Paradise feels like listening to her bitch for 90 minutes. Near the end, a funny, heavy-breathing fantasy scene gives Harty's charms a chance to shine through while showing some light-hearted insights into women's imaginations.

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Chopped Liver also amusingly captures the inane qualities of cruise-ship culture, such as "golfercize," bath-towels folded into animal shapes and silly activities scheduled on the Lido Deck. Larry Davis winningly portrays a variety of pushy tourists and shipboard entertainers. Unfortunately, Rita complains about the ship so much, we don't get a chance to discover the humor on our own. It's like Chopped Liver in Paradise orders us what to laugh at, until the promising-sounding comedy ultimately feels like an over-scheduled vacation that allows nobody a chance to take it easy.

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Chopped Liver in Paradise. Through May 21. Jewish Theatre of the South. Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. Wed.-Thurs. and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. $20-$28. 770-395-2654. www.atlantajcc.org.