PARADISE KEY  A Play by Dean Poynor


"There’s a tiny piece of knowledge, floating in your head. Why can’t I reach in and take it out?"



It is August, 1951. In the sweaty back room of a U.S. Army safe house, hidden deep in the Florida Keys, a young American Counter-Intelligence agent named David has brought in a special subject for an interview – a German medical doctor named Halb. The doctor was rumored to have found a vaccine for Polio, years before his American counterparts, and David wants to acquire that vaccine to save the lives of countless children. However, as the Faustian bargain unfolds, we learn this knowledge was gained by the doctor’s work in Nazi concentration camps with experiments on human prisoners. Over the course of one night, David must find this formula hidden inside Halb’s head, or risk an American disaster.

Based on early CIA interrogation techniques, PARADISE KEY follows the step-by-step process of “breaking the mind” in order to retrieve information. The play explores the border between the physical world (the body, a baseball bat) and the metaphysical (the mind, the will, ideas.) Using specific psychological techniques, David tries to uncover the truth about the formula, but Halb will only offer it to him if he can in return make David a man, complicit and responsible for the consequences. In this way, the two are locked in a battle for definition – of each other, of history, of themselves – using words like knives, and we watch as they dissect the body to find the root of the disease inherited by each generation, passed from father to son.

Cast: 2 (2m)
Single Set
Running Time: Approx. 100 min (one intermission)



PARADISE KEY evolved out of a desire to explore the detrimental effects that the erosion of language has had on our contemporary society. I was intrigued by the vocabulary of post-WWII American ambition, and the near-blind faith that had resulted from the pursuit of Science and Psychology as a panacea for modern problems. Through research for a separate project (my award-winning screenplay Salk, chronicling the life of Jonas Salk and his historic quest to discover a vaccine for Polio), I was introduced to the world of mid-century medicine, and I was immediately confronted by the rhetorical assurance that science was indeed limning the shores of knowledge in an entirely new way. But before our information age - with electron microscopy and genetic sequencing – an element of guesswork (faith?) was still an active ingredient in the Scientific Method. Assumptions, often left conveniently covered up, were required to move forward, and as the Nazi regimes showed us, the double-edged nature of our faith in scientific knowledge, could be used to horrifying effect.

Language then becomes the requisite medium in which we brew our most potent modern potions. And this play argues that we are responsible for the language we choose, and the outcomes of those choices. Because we think science and scientific questions can be answered, we naturally assume that scientific language is free from bias, and that knowledge can be wrested completely from obscurity. But science itself has always been dependent on metaphor: from the christening of the first cell (as in a monk's chambers) to the neat descriptions of the orbital shape of the atom. In PARADISE KEY the basis for the metaphors themselves is examined, as if under the microscope. The shape of the room - clean, sharp, white, with one rigid metal operating table standing center - becomes the field against which the human figures appear: dark, round, and messy by comparison.

To me, the character of David exemplifies the mentality of American progress, giving over his entire vocabulary to the purely pseudo-psychological methods of interrogation, as handed-down to him by qualified experts. His unforgiving worldview traps him, blindly, into a relentless pursuit of a single, if impossible, goal. To him knowledge is indeed a tangible thing, which can be extracted via syringe, separated in a centrifuge, analyzed, and reconstituted at will. The gift that Halb gives him - the vague, terrible, complications of incarnation - is the only possible antidote to David’s Gnostic fallacy. Becoming a man means that we realize there is no real knowledge without first-hand experience of that knowledge. And there is no best intention separate from the individual circumstance. After the glory of every human dream, we are left with a corresponding body, either soaring, or drowning, as we wake.


Development and Production History

  PARADISE KEY was developed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where it received workshop time and readings.


PARADISE KEY was first presented on Feburary 26, 2010, at the Arena Players Repertory Theatre on Long Island, NY, Fred DeFeis, Artistic Director, with the following cast:

  DAVID - John Leone
  HALB - Bob Budnick

The production was directed by Fred DeFeis.


  Winner of the 2010 Trustus Theatre Playwrights Festival.

PARADISE KEY was presented on August 6, 2010, at the Trustus Theatre in Columbia, SC, Jim Thigpen, Artistic Director, with the following cast:

  DAVID - Alex Smith
  HALB - Larry McMullen

The production included Stage Manager Jade Johnson, Lighting Designer George Mirabel, Assistant Stage Manager Tyler Jones, Sound Board Operator Julian Demassey, Technical Director Larry McMullen and Assistant Technical Director Bradon McIver. The production was directed by Jim Thigpen.



Review of the Trustus Theatre production published in on August 12, 2010

Review of the Arena Players Rep production published in Newsday on March 19, 2010


More Information

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