Opening Nights: The 13th of Paris

Getting the difference between schmaltzy and winsome.

All those clichés about romance in Paris, and the potentially treacly narrative device of a ghostly grandfather and his very terrestrial grandson exchanging wisdom on the subject of love, could easily add up to an excruciating night. Fortunately, SPT understands the difference between schmaltzy and winsome, and in the West Coast premiere of Mat Smart's comedy, director Shana Bestock goes squarely for the latter. When young Vincent (Trick Danneker) stands up his girlfriend in Chicago, then flies to Paris on a whim to visit the vacant love shack of his late grandpapa Jacques in search of insight into love's mysteries, little does he expect the old man (Frank Lawler) to actually be there, calling him "Pork Chop" and "Poop-in-the-Tulips" and commanding him to "poot on ze pants." Smart, who's not yet 30, says he used to write political plays, until he realized that's not something many people care about. But they all do seem to care about love—or at least about how the tedious, everyday, take-out-the-trash kind of attainable relationship can ever stand up to the idealized images of l'amour sublime that clutter our consciousness.The play erects two parallel tracks: Jacques' smooth seduction 40-odd years ago of his wife, Chloe (Candace Vance), which had attained the status of epic in Vincent's mind, and Vincent's own bumpy ride with adorably average Annie (Emily Chisholm), who stuffs her face with Mexican food while waiting for him to show up at the restaurant. (It would have been fun to hear mariachi music dueling with the Parisian accordion of Dustin Morache's sound design, but the mere sight of Annie perched over her foil-wrapped burrito still made the point.)Andrea Bryn Bush's single set of the apartment unites charms such as a porcelain in-room sink and a romantic balcony with realities such as an uncomfortably small Murphy bed and a shared bathroom down the hall. This latter detail we discover when Vincent is visited by two of Annie's friends, so drunk and horny they can't make it all the way to the bathroom before consummating their "love" for the umpteenth time that day. As the female of this pair, Angela DiMarco (so understatedly bizarre in Trout Stanley at Balagan earlier this year) temporarily hijacks the show with her zany naturalism, and made me wish for a Rhoda-like spinoff.13th of Paris succeeds because it doesn't try to be a centimeter bigger than it is. As in intelligent storybooks, individuals are quirky and specific but generally well-intentioned, and at its center Vince is well aware of how silly his concerns must seem in the grand scheme of things. Once he's treated to a gritty backstage view of two unions he had thought were ideal, he realizes that even when you build your own romantic happily-ever-after castle with turrets and parapets, the bathroom's still inconveniently down the hall—and there might even be a line for it.

 
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