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What I Learned in Paris

a World Premiere
by Pearl Cleage

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 4398

SHOWING : September 05, 2012 - October 06, 2012



Mini skirts and bell bottoms were on sale downtown for $8.87. Stevie Wonder was on the radio singing "Livin' for the City." And change was in the air from Buckhead to Butler Street. This sparkling new romantic comedy takes us back to 1973 and weaves a tale of passion and politics that could only happen in Atlanta. A world premiere by Pearl Cleage, best-selling novelist and author of the 2010 Alliance hit The Nacirema Society Requests...

Sometimes you have to leave what you know to find what you need.

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Where Were You in '73?
by Dedalus
Thursday, December 20, 2012
In the fall 1973, I was experiencing my first steady girlfriend and my first Broadway musical. One of those is a pleasant memory. Although Atlanta was still 26 years in my future, at the time, things here were on the cusp of historical change. Maynard Jackson was elected as the first Black Mayor of a major Southern city. And playwright Pearl Cleage was in the thick of things.

In �What I Learned in Paris,� Ms. Cleage has gathered together a group of African American characters basking in the glow of the Jackson win and its place in history and has a terrific time skewering the gender-based biases and idiosyncrasies of the era. She has also added a quite forgettable romantic-comedy plot that isn�t fatal so much as distracting.

But it�s not nearly as distracting as the set, a supposedly middle-class residence that makes no architectural, theatrical, or aesthetic sense whatsoever. But, gosh it sure is pretty!

Husband and wife JP and Ann Madison are at the rented Campaign Headquarters celebrating the win with campaign workers Lena Jefferson and John Stanton. JP is a bit of a chauvinist control freak and Ann can be a bit of hide-in-the-shadows spouse (though the opening moments of the play, in which she describes a close encounter with an NBC reporter, shows a strength that is never realized). It turns out that John and Ann are (sorta kinda) carrying on behind JP�s back and are looking for an opportunity to break away.

But, it turns out, JP is on the �short list� for a prestigious appointment in the new administration, and, truth to tell, he and Ann were never �really� married. Will the course of true love (John and Ann) ever have a chance against the larger-than-life machinations of a bullying relic from the fifties like JP? Enter Evie, JP�s ex-wife, and the owner of the house we�re visiting. Equal parts force-of-nature and bull-in-the-china-shop, Evie comes with an agenda and a style all her own.

Why the political and period details are so much more compelling than the romantic comedy elements is simple � Danny Johnson gives JP too much bull-and-bluster, even a bit of cruelty, and none of the elegance and charm we�re TOLD makes him so attractive. There is no earthly reason why Ann would balk at the decision to leave him, and no earthly reason why Evie would (possibly) want him back, Sure it�s easy to root for John and Ann, though, at least after the first scene, Kelsey Scott makes Ann far too wimpy and submissive that we � well, I was going to say we wonder why the men would both want her, but, that�s pretty much what (too many) men found attractive at the time.

Still, for a contemporary audience, we�re left with a romantic comedy with no couples to really root for. Fortunately, we�re also left with a terrific cast in the other roles. Crystal Fox (Evie) returns to the Alliance stage with a vengeance, commanding the story from her first entrance until the last moment of the play. She purports to come armed with everything she learned in Paris about modern feminism and about romance, but, the implication is that she ALWAYS knew what she wanted and ALWAYS went after it in the most direct way possible. She�s never one to suffer fools, especially men. You may think that would make us question her decision to (perhaps) return to JP, but she plays her cards close to the vest, and there�s a distinct possibly she may be after something other than romance � simple revenge, perhaps, or some male consciousness-raising. The bottom line is that it doesn�t matter what she wants (or why she wants it), she makes us like Evie enough that we hope she gets it.

Eugene H. Little IV, turns in his standard excellence as John, and January LaVoy is memorable as Lena. everyone�s �go-to� friend for confession and advice. I wish Kelsey Scott would have given Ann more of the fire she showed in the opening scene, and I wish Mr. Johnson would have give JP just the tiniest spark of charm or vulnerability. Still, they were good enough with period details and mannerisms that my quibbles hurt only my enjoyment of the romance plot.

Now, let�s talk about that set. In productions in the distant past, I have complained about set designers at the Alliance making very theatrical and bold choices, that made no architectural or logical sense (�Spinning Into Butter�s� office that could only have been approached by a thin gangway from a main building, and �Light up the Sky�s� window over a fireplace, for example). Here, we have a two-story set that, at first glance, looks impressive, until you realize that the second story is a simple walkway that leads to a closet-sized room that is supposed to hold two bedrooms and a hallway. The �downstairs� is a single open room that consists of kitchen, dining room, living room and foyer, all arranged in a way that makes no sense (living room area between the kitchen and the dining room, for example), and comes across more as a converted barn than an actual suburban house.

Now, I was told the designer was aiming for a non-realistic �feel,� but I�m skeptical � such an approach has absolutely no textural support, and such an approach would be (and perhaps is) totally hamstrung by the use of realistic walls and shapes and furnishings and props. All I could say is that I spent far too much time distracted by the anomalies built into the set that would have been better spent trying to find a connection to the actors and characters. Whatever the reason and approach, it was a design that called too much attention to itself and totally failed to set the era or to focus our attention where it needed to be.

So, �What I Learned in Paris� was one of those plays I liked but didn�t love. I loved some of the actors, all of the period detail, and most of the characters. I really liked Ms. Cleage�s feel for the era, her dialogue, her plot construction, and the passion she brings to recreating a turning point in Atlanta history.

That being said, I think the romantic plot could benefit by a little bit of tinkering, and any future production would benefit by, well, not to be too harsh, but by employing a designer more interested in illustrating the period and the play than in creating an architectural folly that distracts when it doesn�t wallow in pretention.

Perhaps a trip to Paris would help his learning curve.

-- Brad Rudy (



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