The line is uttered as a revelation, a mixture of delight and relief, by a character who has probably been through more than the story lets on. The speaker is a character who is lonely, not confident and who would like to experience a little less chaos personally and professionally. Not long after the line is uttered, the play “Parfumerie” comes to an end.
And at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts, the line – relief, sweetness holiday cheer and all – resonates, offering with the comfort of a hot toddy on a brisk winter night.
Miklos Laszlo’s “Parfumerie” (“Illatszertar”) about feuding employees who are unaware that they are falling in love with each other via anonymous letter writing is, by now, more celebrated for the tales it has spawned than for the original source material. That the tale that spawned the films “The Shop Around the Corner,” “In The Good Old Summertime” and “You’ve Got Mail” and the Broadway musical “She Loves Me” has any life in America is, in some measure, because of the persistence of Laszlo’s nephew E.P Dowdall who adapted his uncle’s play in 2009.
By christening their theater with the play, programmers of the Wallis’s inaugural season may not have demonstrated a thirst for edgy or difficult material straight out of the gate. Nonetheless Mark Brokaw’s production of “Parfumerie” is consistently and persistently delightful. Mr. George Horvath and Miss Amalia Balash will most likely figure out that they belong in each other’s arms rather than at each other’s throats. Mr. Miklos Hammerschmidt will pick up the shards of his shattered family predicament and figure out how to move forward. The anonymous tipster who set plot B into motion will make him or herself known.
All of this we know as the play unfolds because Laszlo and Dowdall are looking to offer some kinds of assurances in the midst of pending chaos. Things will turn out right because the time is Christmas and because that is the type of play “Parfumerie” is. We know all this by, oh, 15 or 20 minutes into a longish first act, and we are sucked in regardless. A festive smile at curtain call is as much a certainty as a customer departing the titular perfume shop and receiving a chorus of “Hammerschmidt’s thanks you for your business. We hope to see you soon” before he or she hits the doorstep.
Boasting a smooth and polished cast from the leads down to the store patrons, and a tone that neither tilts toward tragedy nor slides toward schmaltz, Brokaw’s production is likely more for the adults than for those looking nurturing a belief in young love. Mr. Horvath (played by Eddie Kaye Thomas), a nine year employee of the store and Miss Balash (Deborah Ann Woll) have probably been around the block a few times where life and love are concerned. They’ve sunk so much hope in finding their destiny with that wonderful unnamed somebody who posts to Box 520 and 1222, in large measure, because neither one has much of a life outside the store. These are shy and retiring people. Hammerschmidt and their fellow workers are their family. And vice versa.
So when an embattled Mr. Horvath smugly tells Miss Balash that he knows about matters of the heart and that she could never love anybody nor could anybody could love her, he opens a wound. We’ve seen Thomas (Finch in the “American Pie” movies” and Woll (forever undead Jessica on HBO’s “True Blood”) largely playing teenagers.) Here, they’re portraying characters who are firmly in their late 20s or early 30s and seeing a model of what should be stability (Mr. Hammerschmidt) and seeing it crumble.
Thomas and Woll are an attractive well-matched pair; not dashingly beautiful, not ugly ducklings. She’s tall and red-headed, hiding behind spectacles; he’s the store’s dependable servicemen, the one who the customers will thank, but will never flirt with. No Noel Coward holdovers, Thomas and Woll bicker neither with elegance nor wit. His needlesome trait is braying out her name “Miss Amahhh-lia BALL-ash. She lets herself get wounded.”
In fact the store has many employees including the wolfish Mr Steven Kadar (Matt Walton) who has bedded Miss Ilona Ritter (Cheryl Ann Bowers) and probably a fair number of customers as well. Arpad Nowack the delivery boy (Jacob Kemp) aspires to be a salesperson. Schiff’s Hammerschmidt, stress and confusion personified, watches over everyone. As does his senior salesman Mr. Sipos (Ayre Gross).
The dual level set constructed by Alan Moyer is nothing short of a work of art. Consisting of a central island, a staircase to the second floor storage racks, sample jars and a rear view of the window display, that store is realized down to the last detail.
Small wonder that the good folks of “Parfumerie” consider it home.
“Parfumerie” plays 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. (310) 746-4000, www.thewallis.org