Charles Mee, who can make an art of being irritating, happily limits most of his irritating excesses to the prologue of “Fetes de la Nuit,” in which a nude woman in a bathtub blathers about the failure of “the human species” to appreciate the “miracle” of life. Once this matter is dispensed with, Mee proceeds to celebrate that miracle as it is lived in the Paris of his dreams. A physically decorative ensemble, well-drilled by helmer Kim Weild, enact witty, occasionally poignant vignettes of street life that gracefully merge into a pretty valentine to the city of light and love.
In a show distinguished by its smart production values, special kudos go to costumer Lisa Renee Jordan for the charming bits and pieces that instantly define the imperious waiters, wanton apache dancers, louche cafe singers, blase boulevardiers, worldly artists, haggard students, chic women, dashing men, lost tourists, lusty lovers and intriguing strangers who inhabit the lovely fantasy world of the playwright’s imagination. (The ruffled panties on a shapely derriere do not go unnoticed.)
Brian H. Scott’s will o’ the wisp set pieces (which make lavish use of gossamer curtains), the bordello accents of Charles Foster’s lighting, Christian Frederickson’s slyly amusing sound effects and C. Andrew Bauer’s dreamy video designs all contribute to the feeling of enchantment.
From time to time, the magical mood may be broken by some pretentious speech or a non-actor’s amateurish delivery, but most of the vignettes in this kaleidoscopic love letter are intelligent, as well as clever. And because so many ensemble members appear to be trained dancers — the tango sequences are stunning, as are the movements of a trio of classical Graces — the collage moves with fluid grace.
Taken individually, many of the vignettes are over and done in a single witty moment. Alexandria Wailes, one of three deaf actors in the cast, is adorable as an unresponsive photographer’s model, resisting even the Gallic challenge to “pose a metaphysical problem.” Resplendent as a lip-synching torch singer in drag, Babis Gousias is on and off before Edith Piaf finishes her last note of “La Vie en Rose.”
Other stories are developed in brief, scattered chapters. One of these is the pursuit of self-assured Frenchwoman Yvette (Ana Grosse) by infatuated young American Henry (Danyon Davis). Other love affairs, of which there are many, are not as memorable.
Luis Moreno, arguably the ensemble’s most valuable performer, delivers a modest tour de force in the role of Barbesco, a French tour guide shepherding tourists through the Luxembourg gardens. Leaving it to other cicerones to pontificate on the art and history of the place, Barbesco points out the various landmarks of his many romantic seductions.
As pleasurably as many of these individual dramas play out, Mee has given himself the greater challenge of integrating all these moving parts into a more sweeping vision of Paris past and present. To this end, the ensemble scenes set in cafes and dance halls do, indeed, convey a sense of the greater city. As does an incisive aria, delivered by the invaluable Moreno, on “the international, hybridized culture” of immigrants who have transformed modern-day Paris.
But historic references to elaborate court fetes at Versailles and the political drama of the French Revolution are largely lost and hardly missed in a valentine as light and lacey as this.