If you like comedy that makes you smile as well as laugh you can’t do much better than 1st Stage’s presentation of Miklós László’s Parfumerie. Audiences on this side of the world are not particularly familiar with this play from its title – written in Hungary in 1936, the comedy has been a favorite in Europe for decades, but only made its U.S. debut in 2009 – but it could very well become a standard Christmastime production in the years ahead. 1st Stage Artistic Director Mark Krikstan, wanting to stage “a Christmas play that is different than what is normally done,” gave it his third season’s holiday slot.
While you may not know the title, its story line will probably sound familiar. Ernst Lubitsch—he of the “Lubitsch Touch”—adapted Laszló’s comedy into the classic 1940 film “The Shop around the Corner.” Despite making many movies that are better regarded and more famous, the German-born director considered it his best work. Spending his childhood working in his father’s Berlin clothing store, it was certainly his most personal.
Hollywood adapted it again at the end of that decade with another classic film—”In the Good Old Summertime” starring Judy Garland. More recently, filmmaker Nora Ephron re-worked the story into her 1998 hit “You’ve Got Mail”. Joe Masteroff picked up the story, turning it into the Broadway musical She Loves Me!, which Arena Stage produced in 2008.
1st Stage represents everything that is right about local professional theatre. Their 110-seat theatre in a strip mall in McLean, VA was clearly well thought out, with a space that is more reminiscent of Studio Theatre than the handfuls of storefront and four-wall theaters that (thankfully) dot our area. For a converted space, the acoustics are remarkable, and the theater has a decent sound system; as for visual aspects, the comfortable, modern stadium seating assures few, if any bad sight lines.
Good thing too, because once the lights dim, you just might forget you are in a Mid-Atlantic suburb for a while. Everything about designer Steven Royal’s set screams 1930’s Budapest, at least in my imagination. The elegant wooden arches that frame the shop’s windows look like they were bought from an perfume store in Europe, and the counters and display cases, look authentic as well as expensive.
Director Leslie Kobylinski takes this prize of a set and runs with it, enhancing the feel by repeatedly sending actors across the space between the windows and the backstage wall, creating the feeling of urban hustle-bustle in the street outside the shop. Hand written letters, strung across the street, flutter gently in the winter’s wind.
Inside our little store, proprietor Miklos Hammerschmidt (Manolo Santalla) is enduring a difficult chapter in his life. He receives an anonymous letter one day warning him that his wife is sleeping with one of his employees.
With this unwelcome storm in his life, Hammerschmidt’s two senior clerks—Mr. Sipos (Mario Baldessari) and Mr. George Horvath (Joshua Dick)— are left to hold the store together. Mr. Sipos is the “wise old man” of the play, with many years behind him and a family to support. He has moved passed petty grudges and destructive ambitions. He sincerely gives advice to his beleaguered co-workers, which is most often dismissed.
Horvath, the loyal and expert clerk, will be another Hammerschmidt in a few decades (if the coming war and the Soviets don’t destroy his life). His relationship with the boss has become strained with the storm clouds of suspicion hanging most heavily over him. Making things worse, he can’t get along with a young clerk named Miss Amalia Balash (Amal Saade), who in his mind may be the worst clerk in Hungary. She comes off as cold and unfeeling to Horvath, incapable of feeling love for anyone, but she in fact is hurt by his disrespect, and wastes private moments crying to Sipos about this cruel man.
Both find refuge by writing romantic letters to a secret penpal and, as Christmas Eve approaches, they are to meet for the first time. If you have seen any of the aforementioned adaptations, you know where this story is headed; if not you will probably figure it out in the first act.
Some performances are particularly enjoyable. Santalla’s sighs, frustrated hand gestures and all, projects the last wit frustration of a man who has run out of answers. Baldessari’s accent may sound a little too English to be Budapest, yet he is surely on the mark in a role that requires a calmness and dry wit as the holiday monsoon blows all around him. Dick captures the frustrations of a loyal clerk, who suddenly finds his position precarious. Saade particularly shines because the emotions she has to portray are so extreme. Everyone has felt despair, and everyone has felt joy. To draw on these opposing emotions so abruptly as Ms. Saade does takes some seasoning, and she does it well.
With but one scoundrel who is dispatched early in act II, this becomes a play full of protagonists. Great comedy requires confusion, gross misunderstanding, and inversion. Parfumerie has more than its fair share of these, but it is more human than that. People often argue why romances and romantic comedies are so popular despite how worn the stories can get. I’ve always maintained that there is a basic human desire to see good things happen to good people. If this is your desire, you will brave the Tysons traffic with a smile on your face. You’ll surely have one when you exit the theatre.
Happy Holidays, or, if you’re so inclined, Merry Christmas.
Parfumerie runs thru Jan 8, 2012 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean, VA 22102
By Miklós László
Adapted by E.P. Dowdall
Directed by Leslie A. Kobylinski
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Steve Hallex
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission