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Theatre in Review: City Stories (Brits Off Broadway/59E59)

Daphne Alexander, Tom Gordon in "Lullaby." Photo: James Phillips

James Phillips writes so beautifully that one wishes he would find more interesting things to write about. City Stories, a collection of short pieces on life in London, is filled with striking turns of phrase and observations that linger in the mind, but the stories themselves are marked by a whimsical, airy-fairy quality that can prove cloying.

Consider "Occupy," the first piece in the program I attended. (Six playlets are being presented during the run at 59E59, but only four are performed each night.) The premise posits the existence of a five-floor facility located under Westminster Abbey, which serves as an archive for all the letters written to God by the people of the world. (Well, anyway, by the Protestants: The letters from Catholics go to Rome and those from Jews go to Jerusalem; it's not clear where letters from Muslims go.) The narrator, Mark, is a member of a quasi-religious order that maintains the letters, which have never been opened. Mark's life comes unglued when he encounters Ruth, who has written one such missive and wants it back. Mark is so drawn to Ruth that, before long, they are hatching a plot to raid the archive. It's a distinctly odd premise -- one could say it reeks of uplift -- but, line by line, the words are quietly stunning. Ready to commit his crime, Mark says, "My hands still shook, like I'd come to kill a king." There's also something eloquent in his comment "Faith is like a Bible in a hotel room; it's there. Use it how you will." The script's more grating qualities are further allayed by the deeply committed, superbly spoken performances of Matthew Flynn and Daphne Alexander. An added attraction is a lovely rendition of the hymn "Abide with Me," performed at the piano by Rosabella Gregory, who also provided original music for the production.

Alexander is the main attraction in the next piece, "Lullaby," in which a strange form of sleeping sickness strikes London, bringing the city more or less to a halt. "It took sixteen days or so for me to become the last conscious person in England," she says, admittedly a pretty gripping way to kick off a story. At first upset by this strange development, Audrey learns to have fun with it: "I have climbed on the backs of dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum. I have stood in the dispatch box in the House of Commons, my Honorable Friends. I have even tried on the dresses in the terrifying Prada store in Bond Street that no one can afford to go into." "Lullaby" is the most extended piece, its premise stretched too thinly; it finally ends with Audrey confronting an ex named Joe, a turn of events for which the author has not laid the groundwork. Alexander does sterling work here, holding our attention despite the piece's longeurs.

"Narcissi" is a piece of romance fiction in which Natalie, a pianist, arrives at St. Pancras Station ready for a trip to Europe. She stops at the piano put there to be used by passersby and, while casually tickling the ivories, is approached by Jack, who puts all of his coins down and announces, "I love you. You are the thing I've been looking for. You are the answer to the riddle of life." Natalie, a skeptical sort, is taken aback, but soon they are living together. Jack is an artist who keeps his work under wraps; when Natalie invades his sanctum sanctorum, she has a revelation that splits them up, followed by a strange reunion years later. This is the most extreme of the pieces, wedding a narrative that makes little or no psychological sense to some shimmering writing. I love Natalie's comment that Jack was "sort of stealth handsome. I mean he was gorgeous but it sort of crept up on you." There's also the comment about her resistance to relationships -- "I was air in a net" -- as well as this remark: "It was a relief when desire passed, like a student finally excused [from] chemistry lessons: happy to be free, but always knowing I could have tried harder." Again, the more awkward bits are smoothed over by the excellent work of Sarah Quintrell and Tom Gordon.

"Pearl" presents another contrived romantic situation: The wealthy, married David is stunned to come across Pearl, a young, poor, self-taught artist, who closely resembles his beloved, deceased cousin, Marguerite. (It's not clear how Pearl can be the spitting image of someone who died as a child, but whatever.) David not only hires Pearl to paint his portrait, he installs her in one of his unused homes. She discovers his journals, which provide her with plenty of data as they begin an affair and she assumes many Marguerite-like qualities. "It was the happiest time of my life and yet it wasn't my life," Pearl notes. Later, when the truth comes out, she says that David "was broken, a man fast-forwarded, old in an instant." Yet this is the one piece that Phillips steers to a conclusion that is both happy and somehow convincing. Flynn turns in another fine performance as David and Phoebe Sparrow is equally good as Pearl, who isn't quite the con woman you might expect her to be.

Gregory's lovely piano and vocal work -- a number of songs are threaded around the action of all four pieces -- consistently adds to the evening's introspective mood. Phillips' handling of the actors cannot be faulted. David Farley's set design is so minimal it can hardly be called a design at all, but he dresses the actors attractively. David Howe's lighting is simple, but elegant, throughout.

City Stories is subtitled "Tales of Love and Magic in London," but the magic comes from Phillips' way with words, not his hokey, contrived plots. It's strange to be so simultaneously seduced and irritated by a play. Maybe Brits Off Broadway will bring him back again, letting us get a bead on his singular style. -- David Barbour

(17 May 2016)

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