Anton Dudley's new play follows the intersecting lives of four people as they take a trip to Paris.
"A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life," Thomas Jefferson once said. Few have said it better; it's a town rich in food and love, culture and art. It has moved scores of renowned authors and filmmakers to create exquisite, legendary works. It's no wonder, then, that the playwright Anton Dudley would also take inspiration from La Ville Lumière. His new comedy-drama, City Of, a Playwrights Realm production at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, aims to capture a moment in the lives of four different people, all of whom have visited Paris for a specific reason. It's an ambitious work, for sure, perhaps a bit too ambitious for its own good. But there are certainly moments of splendor both in the text and Stephen Brackett's staging.
Dudley takes inspiration from Rousseau's painting The Dream, in which a naked woman lies on a chaise amid a bright green jungle. It's in front of this work that the first of two meet-cutes happen, this one between wealthy art collector Dash (Devin Norik) and Claude (Jon Norman Schneider), an eternal wanderer heading to Paris to try and find what he's looking for. Dash, it seems, is heading there as well, to purchase a painting to add to his collection in honor of his late mother. Running parallel to this story line is the sudden friendship formed between Cammie (Colby Minifie), a young opera singer searching for her voice, and Eleanor (Suzanne Bertish), an older woman seeking closure following the death of her father, a Parisian book binder, years earlier.
These stories intertwine in unexpected ways as Dudley subverts expectations and takes what could be an ordinary piece of realism and turns it into the most magical of magical realism. Once our four characters arrive in the City of blank (none of them can seem to find the appropriate noun), their lives go on a detour. Cammie, under the influence of oceans of absinthe, finds herself exploring the sewers. Eleanor is haunted by her memories. Dash and Claude spend the night together and Dash's body literally starts to fall apart as much as his mind . But is this reality? Does it matter? Dudley is exploring the world of dreams. Just as the woman in the painting who dreams she is naked in the jungle, these characters only imagine themselves in these situations.
That, at least, is one interpretation of City Of. Dudley has crafted a play that can be interpreted in several ways. By the end, there's just a bit too much of everything, to the story's detriment, but it's hard not to be impressed by the playwright's gumption. As a director, Brackett is an excellent collaborator; he has chosen designers who capture the twilight state of dreaming in stunning ways. Cameron Anderson has crafted a slanted, jagged-edged set with furniture that seems to pop out of walls. The costumes by Paul Carey are appropriately well-worn. Best of all is Brian Tovar's angular, multicolored lighting that makes us feel like we are actually living in a dream.
The acting is just as strong, with Bertish delivering perhaps the most nuanced and captivating performance as Eleanor, who longs to recapture her youth and sees a kindred spirit in Minifie's quirky Cammie. Norik and Schneider make a convincing couple whom we come to really care about. Completing the cast are Steven Rattazzi and Cheryl Stern, who, in the piece's most affecting scenes, play a gargoyle attached to Notre Dame Cathedral and the pigeon who pays him a daily visit.
Those words alone should answer any questions you may have about the style of City Of, a piece of theater that is chaotic but nonetheless striking.