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."
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