Exactly 10 years ago, director Mark Brokaw staged the New York premiere of a holiday-themed play: The Long Christmas Ride Home, Paula Vogel's offbeat rumination on family as inspired by a Thornton Wilder short story and told through actors and bunraku puppets.
Fast forward to 2013 Los Angeles, where Brokaw is again at work on an event that he described as "the perfect play for the holidays." But visitors to the newly christened Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills can forego any expectations of offbeat characters, chilly revelations or puppets speaking on behalf of human beings. Traditional yuletide notions are not under assault this time around with Parfumerie, the first play to be produced during the Annenberg's inaugural season.
"These kinds of plays don't often get done anymore," said Brokaw. "This is a story that reaffirms what is important in life and how important other people, family and true friends are."
And can we also assume that all this amity-valuing faith restoration is pulled off without any trace of cynicism? "Oh, yes," said the director.
Adapted and translated by E.P. Dowdall from Miklos Laszlo's Illatszertar, Parfumerie tells of Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, a pair of workers in an upscale Budapest perfume shop who are constantly bickering despite the fact that they are unknowingly falling in love with each other through an anonymous letter-writing correspondence. If the title doesn't sound familiar, the plot should set off an entire caroling of bells. Illatszertar is the inspiration not only for the Harnick-Bock musical She Loves Me, but also for the films "The Shop Around the Corner," with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan as warring gift shop employees; "In the Good Old Summertime" with Judy Garland and Van Johnson as feuding (yet loving) music shop workers; and "You've Got Mail," the last of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy collaborations set amidst the backdrop of battling book store owners.
Parfumerie has had a less prolific history in America. Its English-language version did not appear until 2009 when the newly written adaptation by Dowdall (who is Laszlo's nephew) had its American premiere at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, FL. Since then, the play has enjoyed some popularity, primarily at high schools and community theatres throughout the country where it is staged not in the good old summertime, but — you guessed it — as the calendar hits late November.
"It has a large cast and a three-act story with a lot of different threads," said Brokaw. "Plays of that period had lots of different storylines that all intersected in different ways. It's fun working on a play like this again and keeping all those balls in the air."
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
The Annenberg production of Parfumerie features Eddie Kaye Thomas (Dog Sees God, The Golden Age, the "American Pie" movies) and Deborah Ann Woll ("True Blood") as Georg and Amalia, with Richard Schiff (Glengarry Glen Ross, "The West Wing") as the store owner Mr. Hammerschmidt.
Clearly there's something about less modern plays, set in simpler times, that strikes a chord around the holidays. The L.A.-based Schiff had his choice of two plays and a film and opted for Parfumerie. Thomas tried to talk himself out of accepting the role so he could spend his first holiday season at his new home in Brooklyn.
"But then they sent me the script," said Thomas. "It was such a beautiful story and it was so thrilling to work with Mark and the whole idea of opening the Annenberg Center was so appealing, it would have been insane for me to not do it."
"There's something both about the role and the era that this takes place in," added Schiff. "This is taking place in Old World Hungary before everything changed. The way the playwright captured the turmoil without talking about it touched me somehow."
Parfumerie will be Thomas's professional L.A. stage debut. Woll hasn't been on stage since her work as an undergraduate in the drama department at USC six years ago. But to hear her tell it, the film and TV work — including five seasons as teen vampire Jessica Hamby on HBO's "True Blood" — have been something of a sidetrack. "In film, just when you feel like you're starting to get it, you're out," said Woll who won the role of Amalia through taped auditions sent to Brokaw. "It's nice to spend a whole month with the same material and be able to dig in deeply."
To a person, Brokaw and his cast members maintain that, despite Parfumerie's comic holiday cheer, Laszlo and Dowdall provide thematic depths to be mined. The play is set in Budapest in 1937, in the height of what would be the Great Depression and following Hitler's rise to power in Germany. When a policeman comes by to instruct Hammerschmidt to close the store early, there is a socio-political subtext to that curfew that Jewish audiences of that period would have understood.
The scene is brief and the reference is not explicit. Schiff said he made a point of emphasizing to the cast that this little family of shop employees is clinging to beliefs and values which are being threatened.
"I think some of the great stories ever told are about people hanging onto an old world as a new world is invading their lives," said Schiff. "'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' comes to mind. You have an old school Western and old West gangsters and robbers using new world technology to track and trace them. David Mamet wrote Glengary Glen Ross at a time when America began to build its economy based on selling nothing."
Further spicing up the Parfumerie stew is the fact that Hammerschmidt is weighed down by suspicions of his wife's infidelity, potentially with one of his store employees.
"The depth of feeling in the material caught me by surprise," said Brokaw. "Mr. Hammerschmidt is going through a rough patch and really the story is about everybody finding their family and how everyone who works at the shop learns to appreciate each other even more as they pull together for this man."
"We talked in the rehearsal room about this being a time before irony," added Woll. "So much of today's entertainment comes with a wink or judgment or criticism of some kind. This takes place in a dark and difficult time. Despite that, these are people who genuinely love one and other care about their jobs and their family. They care about things like true love."
Parfumerie breaks the seal on the Wallis, the first performing arts complex to be built in Beverly Hills. Spanning a city block, the Wallis has two performance spaces — the 150 seat Lovelace Studio Theater and the 500 seat Goldsmith Theater — as well as a theatre school, a cafe and gift shop. The Parfumerie company gives an early thumbs-up to the working conditions at the Goldsmith with Woll reporting that her fellow cast members were positively giggling at the generous amount of backstage space.
"Normally backstage it's a little tight," she said. "The amenities here are incredible, the set is stunning and we're able to do it without microphones. The acoustics are that good."
Accompanying the performance is a lobby exhibition detailing the history of perfume: "Timeless Scents: 1370-2013" curated by Chandler Burr. But aromatic verisimilitude won't be part of the production. The cast will handle mixtures, but not concoct them.
"No," said Brokaw. "Too many people might be allergic."