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City Of

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Colby Minifie, Suzanne Bertish, Devin Norik, and Jon Norman Schneider.
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Like any great city (or great work of art), Paris can assume any of an infinite number of qualities depending on who's experiencing it, and under what circumstances. But if Paris contains as many stories as it contains people—yes, counting tourists—one suspects that most of them would be more engaging and invigorating, or at least more coherent, than those Anton Dudley relates in his new play for The Playwrights Realm, City Of, which just opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

The title suggests exactly what you're in for: a short evening (90 minutes) of impressions of Paris, in this case given by people who are struggling for the words, and the understanding, necessary to give them full voice. That the central four are American (and played by Suzanne Bertish, Colby Minifie, Devin Norik, and Jon Norman Schneider) imbues those characters with the outsider status necessary to be at the proper loss for emotions as they stumble between life's waypoints, but robs the play of the essential, authoritative texture that might bring the city to life on the stage.

Of course, a critical part of Dudley's conceit is that there is no single version of the city, and that it exists as much in the imagination as it does in fact—if not more. The opening stage picture, of Henri Rousseau's painting "The Dream," underscores this, with its depiction of a tony Parisian dreaming she's in the jungle, whereas most of the characters we'll shortly meet are in one kind of jungle (New York) and long to find themselves and their hearts in Paris.

This is most evident with Claude (Schneider), a young man who encounters and is inspired when he encounters the Rousseau painting on his first trip to MoMA, and he in turn inspires the attention (and libido) of Dash Hollingsworth (Norik), the rich art owner who's displaying that work and others as a tribute to his recently deceased mother. Claude is transported by the painting and the promise of artisanal pastries, and so soon heads off to France himself—at which point he promptly meets Dash again on the plane, and a bond begins to form between the two.

On the other hand, Cammie (Minifie) has more concrete professional yearnings: An opera student, she was told by her voice teacher that she hasn't yet found her voice, so she's planning to do anything necessary to stand on the stage of the Paris Opera and sing. Her voice will have to come to her then, she believes, but for now she stores it in her handbag: "Whenever I need it, I just pluck it from that safe place and drop it inside myself," she explains to Eleanor (Bertish), the 60-something woman she meets upon arriving in town, who herself is searching for answers to help her recover from her father's death.

These tangled personalities are obviously destined to collide, though that's handled more creatively here than is often the case in plays like this. There's little in the way of ham-handed obligation to plot, and the ways the men meet the women are subtle, almost accidental—disquietingly true to life that way. This makes the (very few) scenes in which the characters interact with each other en masse much more striking; they've earned their opportunity, surmounting obstacles of chance, and are forging relationships the tentative, traditional way that makes each word, each gesture a fresh contribution to their growth.

Developing this idea would be enough on its own, but Dudley wants to explore dreams and perspectives more than he does people, so these captivating moments are but a portion of a more cluttered play. Various elements of Paris are anthropomorphized, from Notre Dame gargoyles and pigeons to sewer rats and even a bottle of absinthe (these are played, variously and broadly, by Steven Rattazzi and Cheryl Stern), highlighting the ephemeral, unpredictable atmosphere. And a large chunk of what the actors speak is de facto narration, or self-consciously haunting echoes of specific words and phrases (most memorably including the play's title, sometimes with a telltale final noun and sometimes without) that seem intended to keep you in the half-sleeping state in which these disparate components might jell dramatically.

Dudley falls short of that goal because the Americans' troubles are too naturalistic—and too poorly defined—to easily give way to either the magical realism or the expressionism in which they're drenched. Director Stephen Brackett has staged things well, even if Brian Tovar's lights are overly dark and Cameron Anderson's compact-mindscape set lacks vibrancy and flavor, but can't prevent City Of from unfolding like three unrelated plays performed simultaneously. By the time conclusions and coincidences start cascading in the final scenes (the most outlandish one concerning Claude's orphan upbringing), and not long after everything has become one confused, molten metaphor, none of the individual efforts feels especially fleshed out.

With her crisp, pointed line deliveries and coolly intense focus, Bertish comes closest to creating a complete person within these strictures, and her Eleanor is definitely the most interesting of the lead quartet: energetic but lost, an open-eyed enigma who's forever unlocking new methods of solving itself. Schneider brings an appealing innocence to Claude, but little more than that—he's a young man at the threshold of adulthood, but you don't see move beyond it as the writing dictates. Norik and Minifie have particular trouble capturing Dash's and Cammie's uncertainty, but Norik is able to make more of his more, active plausible role; Cammie, irritatingly written as a near-stereotypical needy artist, invites little more than a braying, disconnected portrayal, which Minifie readily provides.

You want to see how these people are transformed by their exposure to Paris and each other, but they spend too long fighting Dudley's gimmicks to reach their destination. There's palpable passion and even reverence for life and romance in City Of, and that makes the play highly watchable, but they're too deeply buried in a dream for you to grasp as presented. Fluttery absinthe fairies and rodents with Mickey Mouse ears are all well and good, but you long to more clearly see the myriad variations of Paris through the window of these four diverse Americans' hopes and fears.

City Of
Through February 21
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd Street
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