Parfumerie: Theater Review

Jim Cox
Heartwarming, surefire curio makes for apt debut of theater performance at the new Wallis complex in Beverly Hills. 

The play that was later adapted by Ernst Lubitsch to become "The Shop Around the Corner" is the debut staging at the new Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills.

Miklos Laszlo, a Jewish émigré from Hungary, penned his play Illatszertar in 1936 before he fled Europe in 1938 for New York City. Acquired by producer-director Ernst Lubitsch and brilliantly adapted for the screen as The Shop Around the Corner (1940) by the immortal Samson Raphaelson (who wrote nine screenplays for Lubitsch including Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow and Heaven Can Wait), the sublime cast included James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut and Felix Bressart. It represents perhaps the very pinnacle of transcendent romantic comedy in cinema: precise, subtle, intricately intimate. The material was remade as a 1949 movie musical (In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland), a far better 1963 Broadway musical (She Loves Me with Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey), and most recently 1998’s dated update You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Yet however pilfered, plundered and imitated, the original material remained otherwise invisible. Apparently never produced in English, Laszlo and his wife Florence collaborated on a translation in 1956, which has now been lovingly adapted by their nephew E.P. Dowdall and first produced in 2009. It remains a sturdy piece of dramatic invention, sentimental yet surprisingly socially aware of workplace dynamics and the class system. The era of the single proprietor store and of extravagant petit bourgeois manners was irrevocably going to be swept away by the juggernaut of fascist war, and in its own time was essentially already as much a memento of the past as the exchange of letters to post office boxes is considered today.

For those familiar with the adaptations, encountering Laszlo’s original concept can be endlessly interesting, though inevitably one remains aware how it had been extensively improved by Raphaelson (and that Lubitsch touch). For much of the play, the marital stresses on owner Mr. Hammerschmidt (Richard Schiff, Emmy winner for The West Wing) take central attention, crowding the parallel hate-love romance between his employees George Horvath (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Amalia Balash (Deborah Ann Woll) into an ill-proportioned subplot until the Third Act. Laszlo makes numerous narrative missteps, such as recapitulating the First Act curtain climax right after intermission as a witness repeats to another employee at length what we had just experienced.

Nevertheless, the now well-worn concept still hits its fundamental sweet spot with just enough tartness to avoid the saccharine. It’s good to see a show of this provenance get a production worthy of its pedigree. The cast is good indeed, so long as not pitilessly compared to their forebears. Just as in the film William Tracey stole his every scene, so too does Jacob Kemp as the upwardly mobile bicycle delivery boy Arpad. Schiff can often seem like an incongruously Ibsenesque player amidst the brittle charm of the ingenues and the vigorously interpreted types of the elderly mousy employee Mr. Sipos (Arye Gross) and the oily opportunist Steven Kadar (Matt Walton).

The former Beverly Hills Post Office has been felicitously converted into, among its other spaces, an attractive new midsize house for legitimate theater, with precise acoustics for speech and an ample stage that boasts room for a sumptuous store set by Allen Moyer. And, appropriately, residing in the lobby for the balance of the run, is a historical exhibit on perfumes and a popup Salvatore Ferragamo shop. 

Venue: Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills (runs through Dec. 22)

Cast: Richard Schiff, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Deborah Ann Woll, Arye Gross, Jacob Kemp, Matt Walton, Cheryl Lynn Bowers, Jayne Taini, Jacob Kemp, Tony Pasqualini

Director: Mark Brokaw

Playwright: Miklos Laszlo, adapted by E.P. Dowdall from the English translation by Florence Laszlo

Music: Peter Golub

Scenic designer: Allen Moyer

Lighting designer: David Lander

Costume designer: Michael Krass

Sound designer: Jon Gottlieb