The play is in three parts based on a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde on the effects of Absinthe: “ordinary drinking,” “monstrous and cruel things,” and finally, “wonderful and curious things.” It also sets four people each on their own journey. Dash (Devin Norik) and Claude (Jon Norman Schneider) meet at the Museum of Modern Art in front of Henri Rousseau’s painting called “The Dream” in which a nude woman lying on a divan is in the middle of the jungle. The painting is part of “the Dash Hollingsworth Collection displayed in honor of his (late) mother, Emily.” Visiting a museum for the first time, Claude is fascinated by the work. Dash (who is still grieving over the death of his mother) is immediately smitten with Claude who reciprocates his feelings. They meet again at the airport on the way to Paris where Eleanor (Suzanne Bertish), an older woman trying to seek out her roots, meets Cammie (Colby Minifie), a young opera singer who has just finished her college degree, also on the way to Paris.
Each is on a personal journey: Dash wants to buy a painting that will help him “recover” his lost mother; Cammie wants to sing on the stage of the Paris Opera as a way of finding her own voice; Eleanor is seeking the site of her childhood spent in Paris and her late father; and Claude (desiring an adventure different from his life up till now) claims to want to taste an authentic Parisian pastry. For each of them, it is Paris of dreams and questing. We meet the ghosts of poet Paul Verlaine and artist Maurice Denis. All of the characters have a middle-of-the-night ramble through Paris which will change their lives.
Unlike Strindberg’s Dream Play, it is not always possible tell what is real and what is dreamed from what the main characters say. Aside from the ghosts and the painting that comes to life, the additional characters (played by two actors) including a gargoyle on the top of the Cathedral of Notre Dame who has fallen in love with a pigeon, the Green Fairy that is the essence of Absinthe, the ghost of Dash’s mother, and a talking sewer rat. Along with the story of the horny curator of the Musée de l’Homme (an actual but obscure tourist site), it often feels like there are too many stories and quests going on at the same time – unless the point is that for the author Paris is a city of journeys. With much of the dialogue in poetry, City Of is often too precious for its own good.
Director Stephen Brackett has obtained fully three-dimensional characterizations from his actors in roles that are vastly underwritten. It is to their credit that they are able to do so much with so little. Norik’s Dash is charming and debonair as the millionaire, while Schneider’s Claude has the innocence and unworldliness of someone just on the brink of experience. Bertish’s Eleanor is superb at suggesting a world weary woman who has seen everything and is trying to reconnect with her youth. Minifie’s Cammie is eccentric in the way that only artists, actors and singers can be. Asked to alternate between being demure and brazen in their assorted roles, Cheryl Stern and Steven Rattazzi do an excellent job each playing five very different characters, as well as narrating the story at various times.
The production design is problematic as it seems to be at odds with the tale being told. While the minimalistic setting by Cameron Anderson allows for quick segues from one episode to another as well as overlapping scenes, it is devoid of atmosphere – noticeable here because of the mythic nature of Paris as presented in the play. The lighting by Brian Tovar never suggests a dream although the snow scenes are particularly poetic. As for Paul Carey’s costumes, only the outrageous outfit for the English Lady that Claude meets in his nocturnal wanderings is memorable and adds color to the play. While Matt Hubbs’ sound design includes French chansons at the beginning and the end of the play, the time spent in Paris does not have enough local aural effects. On the other hand, the one original French song set to music by Michael Cooper and sung by Bertish is so Gallic that you can easily believe that you have heard it before.
Like its title, Anton Dudley’s City Of is a bit coy in its attempt to put the dreams of four people on stage. Poetic, fanciful, surreal, otherworldly, City Of is an attempt to create a world just below the surface of reality. While the story may not work for you, it has been given an excellent staging by Stephen Brackett with a cast of six actors totally in tune with the dreamlike nature of the play.
City Of (through February 21, 2015)
Inaugural Alumni Production of The Playwrights Realm
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightsrealm.org/city-of
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission