The Benchmark Theatre program credits E.P. Dowdall as the author of Parfumerie , the company’s current offering. But Dowdall is actually the author’s nephew, and the adapter of this gentle Christmas comedy. The omission is a bit of a shame, because the play’s history is interesting. It was written in 1936 by Miklos Laszlo, who left Hungary soon afterward as the Nazi threat loomed closer. Although it wasn’t produced in a straight-up English translation in the United States until 2004, the play had several incarnations here well before that. The first was Ernst Lubitsch’s popular 1940 film,The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. In 1949 came the movie musical, In the Good Old Summertime, a vehicle for Judy Garland. A Broadway musical, She Loves Me, followed in 1963, and in 1998 Nora Ephron adapted the script for her rom-com You’ve Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Dowdall’s adaptation of his uncle’s work didn’t come until 2009. He stayed close to the story, which is still set in 1930s Budapest, but modernized the dialogue a little.
While Benchmark didn't exactly unearth a gem, since there are some flaws in the script, the production attests to Benchmark's originality in choosing material and willingness to explore. Parfumerie makes a nice change from all the Scrooges and Cratchits haunting local stages, too.
You may remember the plot of You’ve Got Mail, in which the proprietor of a small, independent bookstore falls in love — through an exchange of no-name email messages — with the owner of the corporate chain who's threatening to put her out of business. But while the characters played by Ryan and Hanks have serious reasons for their rage and rivalry, it’s never really clear what’s bugging Miss Amalia Balash and Mr. George Horvath, who both work in the small, exclusive shop that's the setting for all of the action in Parfumerie. They fight over trivia. They willfully misunderstand each other. He draws out her name mockingly when he speaks it. At least, that’s how she hears it. The sparring has been going on for two years. And yet, like the lovers in You’ve Got Mail, they’ve been unwittingly corresponding with great love and tenderness via snail mail. Despite the sometimes unconvincing dialogue, the couple’s exchanges are often very funny, particularly as the misunderstandings accumulate, realization threatens to dawn and is somehow avoided, then threatens to dawn again. Amalia and George are appealingly played by a vital, volatile and sexily crimson-lipped Emma Rebecca Maxfield and a more restrained Ryan Omar Stack.
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But there’s a second and sadder plot line that intertwines with this love story. As the action begins, the store’s owner, Mr. Hammerschmidt, is inexplicably harsh toward George. This puzzles everyone, since he’s generally the kind of boss loved by his employees — even if he’s far less jolly and more pensive than, say, A Christmas Carol’s Mr. Fezziwig. Turns out he has domestic troubles, and these are making him suicidal and also affecting his heart, in every sense. Tim Fishbaugh gives a moving and understated performance in the role.
In addition to the three leads, we meet Mr. Sipos, the sort of hapless, devoted and essentially good-hearted older employee who’s a little reminiscent of Mark McKinney’s wonderfully fumbling Glenn in the TV series Superstore; he’s affectingly played by Perry Lewis. There's also nattily dressed, philandering Mr. Kadar (Drew Hirschboeck); bustling Arpad (Christopher Robin Donaldson, who transforms convincingly from errand boy to ambitious striver); Ms. Molnar (an authoritative Haley Johnson) and Miss Ritter (the divine Maggy Stacy). But aside from Mr. Kader, the men all need someone to shorten their distractingly down-over-the-heels trousers. Budapest is an elegant city, and its parfumeries still the most luxurious of luxury shops.
Parfumerie is fairly long — three acts with two intermissions — and though some of the actors tend to be a bit frenetic, there’s a quietly ambling pace to the overall production that plays well with the sheer pleasure of slowing down for an evening, scarfing cookies in the festively decorated lobby, listening to old-style carols, and getting acquainted with this amusing array of confused eccentrics.
Parfumerie, presented by Benchmark Theatre through December 21, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, benchmark.com.