Presented cabaret-style in a black box theater, each of the plays in City Stories–six in all–take place in London, the backdrop for stories of missed connections, unlikely romances, and daring adventures. At the performance under review, the four plays seen were Occupy, Lullaby, Narcissi, and Pearl.
The Saturday matinee show kicked off with Occupy, the story of two strangers brought together by fate. Mark, played by Matthew Flynn, works at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and is in charge of collecting and organizing all the mail from around the world, including centuries of letters addressed to: God c/o St. Paul’s, London. Ruth, the other stranger in the story, is in need of someone of Mark’s position, who can access the mail that has already been received. Daphne Alexander’s Ruth, who sent a letter God but is having second guesses, approaches Flynn hoping for his help. Alas, Alexander’s charm is undeniable and before he can help it, Mark is plotting the infiltration of his own work facilities.
Lullaby, a languid tale of the end of world, imagines a London overtaken by sleepwalkers–former Londoners who fell victim to a sleep disorder. The epidemic, as told by Alexander in a second role as Audrey, causes each person affected to sleep one additional hour per day, inevitably leading to the person becoming totally absorbed in a sleep-like state. Lullaby’s unique concept for the end of the world is both haunting and ironic in its subtle observations of the behavior of mankind in the modern world.
The following play, Narcissi, is a time-lapse retrospective of a relationship from the very beginning. Sarah Quintrell’s Natalie, playing a piano in a public space, is interrupted by Tom Gordon as Jack–who proclaims upon first meeting her “I love you. You’re the thing I’ve been looking for. You are the answer to the riddle of life.” From there, the two constantly come back around in each other’s lives for years to come, and the friendly on stage connection between Quintrell and Gordon makes their characters’ fates all the more believable.
Pearl, the final of the four plays presented at the performance under review, provides evidence of the fact that love does not have any shape or form, and is sometimes found between even the most unlikely of parties. Featuring Flynn and Phoebe Sparrow, Flynn plays a married man–David–who finds solace in a younger woman that reminds him of a long lost love, an important figure from his past. Featuring the most challenging relationship model out of each of the four plays, Pearl’s message isn’t so much an endorsement for infidelity as it is a study on the many complicated forms of love that exist.
Interspersed throughout each of the different one acts of Phillips’ City Stories are original songs and musical interludes by Rosabella Gregory, whose lilting melodies and soulful vocals drape a certain mysticism over the entire production. Gregory has a beautiful vocal timbre, and her piano arrangements accentuate both the show and her voice excellently.
Each of the actors in the ensemble is featured in at least two stories, and each play has been directed meticulously by the playwright, who made sure to spend time differentiating the roles his actors from one play to the other. Even with the limited production value that comes with a cabaret-style show, little changes were made between the actors’ varying wardrobes to distinguish each character.
A seamless production in many ways, James Phillips’ latest is nothing short of ambitious, and Rosabella Gregory’s music is the perfect companion. Thoughtful and engaging, the enchanting collection of English fairy tales known as City Stories is a serendipitous affair.
City Stories (through May 29, 2016)
2016 Brits Off Broadway
Goodge and Mortimer Productions, Room One, and Oxford Playhouse
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission