Los Angeles Theater Review: PARFUMERIE (Bram Goldsmith Theater in Beverly Hills)

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by Paul Birchall on December 7, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


For its inaugural stage dramatic production at the glittering new Bram Goldsmith Theater, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is presenting a charming candy box of a play that seems as much as an audition piece for the venue as it is a night of stagecraft in its own right.  And, really, by anyone’s standards, there is so much to show off here.  The Annenberg Center, located near the Beverly Hills City Hall in a gorgeously caparisoned facility so new it almost squeaks, is indeed a dazzling space.  Honestly, as your shoes clatter on the marble floors, there’s almost too much to see:  It’s like Hogwarts meets Valhalla, with a bit of Rodeo Drive commercialism tossed in.

Maze like corridors snake back and forth into gorgeous, hardwood floor classrooms intended for children’s theater projects, and a little black box theater and tiny mini-art galleries seem to pop up like mushrooms in sod.  At one point, it almost seems that you turn left and find yourself in the balcony of the theater you just left from.  As you double back, you emerge onto a Matt Walton, Richard Schiff, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Jayne Taini and Arye Gross. Photo by Jim Cox in PARFUMERIE.gorgeous exterior patio that overlooks the glittering shops on Santa Monica Blvd and Canon Drive.  Damn place is like Doctor Who’s Tardis.

There isn’t a bad seat in the house at the Goldsmith, and the walls are lined with movable slats and curtains capable of re-arranging the acoustics, so the venue can be used either for a dramatic play, an opera, classical music or a lecture with everyone hearing what’s going on everywhere they sit.  The seats are capacious and comfortable, and are wide enough to embrace bottoms of almost all size – not a minor consideration in a world in which plump theatergoers are often forced to sit on spindly chairs that snap like kindling under one’s girth.

Director Mark Brokaw’s production of Parfumerie is a bit of a “kick-the-car” effort that hits its marks and is quite enjoyable without ever managing to challenge or threaten the audience too much – and perhaps that’s the point of a baptismal event.  Written by the Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo (adapted by Laszlo’s nephew E. P. Dowdall, in Florence Laszlo’s translation), the charming piece became the basis of the Jimmy Stewart film The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which itself has been Eddie Kaye Thomas and Deborah Ann Woll in PARFUMERIE.updated through many permutations on screen, including the Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and the fairly recent Hollywood romancer You’ve Got Mail (1998). Perhaps the greatest adaptation is Harnick and Bock’s (Fiddler on the Roof) jewel-box of a musical, She Loves Me (1963). The production at hand elucidates why Parfumerie screams to be musicalized.

At the picturesque perfume shop where he oversees his handful of devoted employees, kindly shopkeeper Hammerschmidt (Richard Schiff) becomes aware that one of his employees has been having an affair with his wife.  He jumps to the conclusion that the vile lothario is none other than his prodigy underling Horvath (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a young genius with the spritzer, who can sell a lady a massive bottle of scent faster than you can spin on your heel.  Hammerschmidt bullies Horvath into making a mistake that gets him fired – but relents after discovering that he was totally wrong about the identity of the fellow who was seeing his wife.  Meanwhile, Horvath, in addition to his job woes, has romantic issues of his own, as he has been conducting a long time pen pal romance with a lovely lady he feels sure is the perfect gal to him.

However, the woman with whom he is having the epistolary romance turns out to be another perfume shop employee — the beautiful, slightly nerdy Amalia (Deborah Ann Wall).  The joke is that neither Amalia nor Horvath realize that they’re actually in love with each other, and, indeed they loathe each other at the workplace.  The entire kerfluffle makes kindly, mild mannered perfume shop employee Mr. Sipos Deborah Ann Woll and Eddie Kaye Thomas in PARFUMERIE.(Arye Gross) just wring his hands; all he wants is to make a living.  Be glad none of this stuff happens at your neighborhood Sephora or you’d never get anything done.

Director Brokaw’s staging is steadfastly upbeat and good humored – and the production itself is absolutely gorgeous.  How can you not be completely drawn into designer Allen Moyer’s beautifully detailed 1930s Hungarian perfume shop set – so intricate and so tactile, you want to browse the colorful green and pink tins and sniff the little Venetian fragrance beakers to see if their contents are as nice as their containers look.  Moyer’s set is kinetically designed so that the characters constantly have doors to open and counters to set up and take down.

As for the play, well, it’s no use saying it’s a brilliant work of theatrical writing and intellectual depth.  Frankly, it isn’t.  To be charitable, though, the text hasn’t aged well:  The piece captures the intimate and at times almost incestuous boiler room atmosphere of a retail shop, but the plot’s framework is generally too contrived to pass muster.  Amalia and Horvath’s mail order romance is unlikely and is resolved too conveniently.  The other subplots – Hammerschmidt’s persecution of employees based on personal prejudice, and another character’s spiteful action that sets the plot Eddie Kaye Thomas, Cheryl Lynn Bowers, Arye Gross, Jayne Taini and Matt Walton in PARFUMERIE. Photo by Jim Cox.into motion – leave a disturbing aftertaste, given the fact that the characters are meant to be sympathetic on their own terms.

That said, the crisply assured performances, and Brokaw’s clockwork pacing, give the text its best possible production, though we sometimes sense we’re seeing a show that doesn’t have much faith in the possibility of multi-dimensional psychology.  Thomas is a pleasantly likable male lead – alternating brash confidence and boyish emotional fragility – and he’s matched by Wall’s sweetly neurotic Amalia.  Schiff’s Hammerschmidt possesses a barely reigned in frustration that evolves into a wise benevolence as he comes to his senses.  As the shop dogsbody and errand boy, Jacob Kemp stands out with a sweetly appealing performance.

In many respects, this is a textbook decent play:  If you were to run down a checklist of elements that are desired for a mid-scale theatrical production, this one hits the marks – splendid venue, artfully designed set, smart performances.  (The Christmastime element in Parfumerie doesn’t hurt when it comes to attracting patrons, either.)  However, the meat in the sandwich is a little bland.  If the play were one of the perfumes sold in Hammerschmidt’s shop, the scent would be vanilla.

photos by Jim Cox

Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on December 22, 2013
for tickets, call 310-746-4000 or visit www.thewallis.org

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