Playcrafters Barn Theatre's romantic comedy The 13th of Paris leans more toward the romantic than the comedy, yet remains charming. Director Dana Moss-Peterson handles playwright Mat Smart's examination of imperfect love held up against idealized standards with respect for its eventual moral, and while the production could undoubtedly be funnier, it's not ruined by the more serious approach taken here.
What's beautiful about Smart's tale are the unexpected paths his plot takes. As Vincent (the dashing Jordan Smith) paces about his grandparents' Paris apartment in the 13th arrondissement, dressed in a full suit except for shoes and pants, he begs his grandfather Jacques (Scott Tunnicliff) to reveal the keys to finding a love like his. Based on the suitcase of letters Jacques wrote to Chloe (Lisa Kahn), Vincent presumes their romance was Parisian perfection. Vincent's own, however, lacks similar passion, primarily because his girlfriend Annie (Bailey Hager) doesn't ever get angry with him. Longing for more emotion from his relationship yet not getting it, Vincent has consequently run off to Paris, without telling Annie, to sort things through.
Smart's script is not without flaws, though, and its weaknesses also expose Moss-Peterson's. There's far too much exposition in the beginning, with Smart apparently feeling the need to explain what seems like every detail of Vincent's situation, the apartment's significance, and the history of Jacques' and Chloe's relationship. As Smart's early dialogue drones on and on, Moss-Peterson's too-literal staging is exposed. When Vincent references the bed in which his grandparents slept, he crosses the room to stand next to and gesture toward it. When he mentions his grandparents, he crosses to and grabs a photo of the couple. Granted, Moss-Peterson is obviously trying to do something to match the staging to the script, but this lack of subtlety grated on my nerves. Once we're finally past the lengthy back stories, however, Moss-Peterson's take on the material unfolds in a much more natural manner, although the actors sometimes seem to meander rather than move with purpose.
In terms of The 13th of Paris' characters, I found myself envying Vincent for having such a poised, eloquent grandfather with whom to talk (and with no offense intended to my own, wonderful grandfather). Tunnicliff, dressed smartly in a pin-stripe suit and appropriate chapeau, commands the stage as he takes a stroll here or executes a few dance steps there, and delivering lines such as "Any thought you have without pants is not worth thinking" in a flawless French accent, the actor elicited the majority of Friday's relatively few laughs. (The only way Tunnicliff could be more perfect in the role would be if he were actually French.) He's so good each and every time he's on stage that almost from the play's start, I lamented that I don't get to see enough of Tunnicliff in area productions.
Similarly, I hailed the return of Tunnicliff's daughter Anna in a featured role. I fondly recall her Genesius Guild ingénues from several summers ago and have missed her presence since (though she has had chorus roles in the season-ending comedies), and here, Anna Tunnicliff breaks type and plays a drunken, loud-mouthed, chatty friend of Annie who visits Vincent along with her husband William (Tyler Henning). The actor nails the character's amusingly annoying nature as she fawns over Vincent and stumbles to the apartment building's shared bathroom to have loud sex.
Smith is in fine form as Vincent's internal struggle weighs on his heart, evidenced by the frustration on the actor's face and the agitation in his movements. Henning plays William with a mix of British politeness and Bohemian freedom, while Kahn makes the most of her every stage moment, even when simply sitting in the background, writing letters at a café. (The two featured cafés are the highlights of the scenic design, for which no one is credited in the program, as their locations are clear not only by the white-on-black Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty drawings behind them, but the decorative metal bistro table in the Paris café and mid-century wooden chairs in the American one.) Hager, too, is noteworthy for avoiding stereotype and portraying Annie as not overly girly, but rather a sincere, matter-of-fact kind of woman.
Friday's performance did suffer a bit from pacing issues, as Moss-Peterson allowed several moments to breathe for impact a little - sometimes a lot - too much. Overall, however, I left satisfied with Playcrafters' The 13th of Paris. Smart's script hits the right emotions while taking a journey that's unexpected and ultimately stirring, and while this production misses its comedic cues, it pulls at the heartstrings admirably.
The 13th of Paris runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline) through March 22, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 or visiting Playcrafters.com.