Henri Rousseau’s painting, “The Dream,” depicts a woman lying naked on a lounge chair in a vibrantly colored jungle. Inspired by Rousseau’s painting, playwright Anton Dudley creates a world balancing the real and surreal in “City Of.” The play follows its four main characters, Claude, Dash, Cammie and Eleanor, as they journey to Paris to fulfill personal goals and desires. Divided into three “stages,” the new comedy-drama transports the audience to the enchanting corners of Paris.
During the first stage at the Museum of Modern Art, “The Dream” brings together Claude and Dash, played by Jon Norman Schneider and Devin Norik, respectively. The two are headed to Paris: Claude, allured by the pastries and the so-called Parisian magic, while Dash, an affluent art collector, searches for a painting to honor his deceased mother. When Dash trades his first class ticket to sit next to Claude in economy, a heartwarming love story commences. In a parallel coupling at the airport, Colby Minifie plays Cammie, an aspiring opera singer. She befriends Suzanne Bertish’s character, Eleanor, who is returning to Paris in search of solace after the death of her father.
“City Of” relies heavily on interdependence. Stories intersect in surprising ways, as each experience strays from the expected. Claude comes to understand his unanticipated ties to Paris. After Dash and Claude spend a night together in bed, the former starts to physically fall apart, demonstrated by his arm falling off. While aspiring to perform at the Paris Opera, Cammie drunkenly explores the sewers of Paris in order to find her voice. Eleanor, the most dramatic of the bunch, battles nagging memories of her past and of her father. It seems that there is something magical about Paris that transforms these characters. Despite trying, none of the characters can find the appropriate word to complete the phrase: Paris is the “City Of.”
The three stages, “Ordinary Dreaming,” “Monstrous and Cruel Things” and “Wonderful, Curious Things” provide for a thorough tale. From a love story between a pigeon and a Notre Dame gargoyle to absinthe’s haunting green fairy, “City Of” fills its 90-minute runtime to the brim. Though at times this play feels chaotic and perplexing, it also leaves the audience with a collection of both passionate and whimsical moments.
Director Stephen Brackett creates mystical moments with this ambitious show. The seemingly simple set, created by Cameron Anderson, grounds the audience in Paris without any of the city’s stereotypes. Rousseau’s “The Dream,” a bed that pops out of the wall, and part of Notre Dame’s façade create convincing scenery for the cast’s eerie adventures.
The acting is the strongest element of “City Of.” The busy and complicated plot are grounded in its convincing characters. Cammie embodies the naive dreamer, traveling to Paris with only shoes in her pockets and underwear in her purse. Eleanor’s struggle with her past is heartbreaking and powerful. The raw quest for lasting love between Claude and Dash is at the heart of the show. Steven Rattazzi and Cheryl Stern deserve a special mention, as the two play an array of characters who add humor to the show through a hungry pigeon, water-spewing gargoyles and a nervous gallery owner, among other characters.
“City Of” brings to life that unidentifiable Parisian magic that exists between the cobblestones. “City Of” plays at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St., through Feb. 21.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 17 print edition. Email Willa Tellekson-Flash at [email protected]