The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
– Paradise Lost Book I, 254-255
In Seth Panitch’s hilarious new play Hell: Paradise Found, a satirical send-up of conventional religion and morality, Simon Ackerman (Thomas Adkins) walks into an office to find himself in an interview with the devil (played by the playwright Seth Panitch). Simon is confused and a little indignant. After all, he never broke the rules at any time during the span of his completely predictable life. He got a respectable job, a wife, a 401(K). He should spend his golden rest-of-eternity years on the golf links in the sky, playing everlastingly on soft greens at three under par.
So why is he being interviewed by the devil? To answer this question the devil shows Simon an instructional video of Adam and Eve at the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. The salient features of the primeval drama are as follows: God is a woman (old); Gabriel is a foppish dandy; Eve is a shrew (young); Satan is a Romantic Hero (Byron); and Adam is a moron. Eve, far from being a passive dupe, has been the prime mover in mankind’s fall. As a matter of fact, Satan (let’s not forget that his original nom de guerre was Lucifer, brightest star of the morning) tried to protect the tree from her until he reasons himself into permissiveness on humanitarian grounds. He makes a strong argument to God that the humans shouldn’t be denied knowledge because the search for knowledge is what makes them human. But to no avail. Gabriel, the heavenly toady, sneers at the divine disrespect implied by Satan’s over familiarity with the Lady of Hosts, and as punishment Satan is sent to protect and curate Hell.
After the video is finished, Satan invites Simon to relax at a popular bar in Hell while the Devil Advocate clears up some confusion in his file. In the bar Simon meets Vlad the Impaler, Lizzie Borden, Don Juan, and Maria Teresa a.k.a. Mother Teresa. (Why is Mother Teresa in Hell? More on that in a minute.) Utterly horrified, Simon wonders what he could have possibly done to deserve such a fate — until he hears Vlad, Lizzie, Don, et al. complain that Hell doesn’t want squarepants lawyers like Simon. Hell is for people who did something unique in life. Lawyers are uniformly predictable suits, which is why Heaven is full of them. Satan returns with Her Majesty, God, and tells Simon the bureaucrats upstairs made a mistake — he was taken before his life’s defining moment, his chance to decide for himself if he was to spend the afterlife upstairs or down.
The ending is what you might expect. If Hell is for singular strivers after creativity, Mr. Panitch is definitely going to playwright Heaven when he dies. In this topsy-turvy comedy where bad is good and up is down, breaking the rules is turned into a rule, while following “the rules” (e.g. “all things in moderation”) gets you excluded from the He-Man Woman Haters Club known among losers as “Hell.” The idea that Hell is, in fact, where all truly creative individuals want to be is at least as old as William Blake’s assertion that John Milton (author of Paradise Lost) was of the devil’s party without knowing it, and that was over two hundred years ago. Also, this misplaced Romanticism misses the finer theological points of Milton’s epic, like understanding sin as the result of breaking faith (cheating on) someone you love. But the jokes are good, and the actors — especially Chip Persons as Milton’s Satan and Vlad the Bad(ass) — do a wonderful job of bringing wit and verve to the witty and very entertaining dialogue.
I could almost hear The Great Equivocator laughing at Mr. Panitch’s turn as the devil’s advocate during the applause at the end of the show. It is exquisitely ironic that this play, deeply conservative in terms of genre, would advocate a sin like risking failure on unfunny, singular, too creative or too abstruse jokes. In theatrical Hell the jokes are complicated and cerebral. Hell: Paradise Found is pure theatrical Heaven.