Scrooge still holds a monopoly on holiday theater, but worthwhile alternatives to "A Christmas Carol" have been cropping up of late. A few are even W.C. Fields friendly, meaning the audience is largely free of wailing, coughing, scampering little darlings.
"Parfumerie," which opened Wednesday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, is a festive entertainment expressly for adults. The play by Hungarian-born playwright Miklos Laszlo will be familiar to you even if you're not entirely sure what a parfumerie is. (It's a store that sells perfume along with fancy toiletries, and Allen Moyer's gorgeous set for this production might as well be open for business at the Wallis' fancy Beverly Hills digs.)
Laszlo's 1936 comedy-drama inspired three major motion pictures ("The Shop Around the Corner," "In the Good Old Summertime" and "You've Got Mail") as well as the Broadway musical "She Loves Me." The offspring have fantastically eclipsed the parent, but E.P. Dowdall, Laszlo's nephew, has attempted to remedy the matter with a new English language adaptation that hews closely to his uncle's original script.
He doesn't succeed, but the material is so foolproof that it hardly matters.
"The Shop Around the Corner," that sublime 1940 Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy starring James Stewart at his most irresistible and Margaret Sullavan at her pepperminty best, concentrates on the curious love story of bickering shop employees who don't realize that they are each other's amorous pen pal. The roughness of life slips in, but a playful ironic lightness prevails.
"Parfumerie" divides its focus between the sublimated shenanigans of George Horvath (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Amalia Balash (Deborah Ann Woll) and the more dire situation of the proprietor, Miklos Hammerschmidt (Richard Schiff), who learns that his wife is having an affair with one of his workers, the foppish phony Steven Kadar (Matt Walton).
Schiff, who won an Emmy for his role as Toby Ziegler on "The West Wing," is a commanding dramatic actor, and he portrays the rapidly aging Mr. Hammerschmidt as though he were a character as grittily realistic as any in Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing!"
The grounds for this approach are laid down in the play. Although there's plenty of comedy in the story line, particularly when the hyperactive errand boy Arpad Novack (a marvelous Jacob Kemp) is flailing about trying to win favor, "Parfumerie" contains some stark business.
A failed suicide attempt ends the first act, and there's a heart attack after the intermission. Even the setting — Budapest in 1937 — has turned ominous, with store curfews monitored by the authorities who rattle the merchants.
Director Mark Brokaw is comfortable with the play's darker shadings. Rather than attempt to reconcile the gravity with the zaniness, he allows them to exist side by side. The production is sumptuous (Michael Krass' costumes look like a million bucks in this jewel box venue that is as intimate as it is grand), but there's a disjunction that can't be smoothed over by scenic finery.
The play's cumbersome setup is so focused on Mr. Hammerschmidt that George and Amalia's relationship becomes an afterthought. (Mr. Hammerschmidt is the true protagonist here.) The general life of the store as it gears up for Christmas season while the owner is in the throes of a nervous breakdown takes precedence over a silly incipient romance.
I found myself rooting for the dramatically marginalized couple to get together not because I had particularly strong feelings for this George or Amalia but because I have an abiding affection for Stewart and Sullavan's screen version of these roles. Nostalgia won the day.
Thomas is closer to Tom Hanks than he is to Stewart, though it took me some time to register his individual qualities. Woll has a distinctive loveliness and sparkly charm, but I never quite felt the chemistry between her character and Thomas'.
"Parfumerie" may be a bit too generous at doling out character complications. A veteran employee, the servile Mr. Sipos (an excellent Arye Gross), turns out to have had a role in the uncovering of the adulterous secret plaguing the store. These kinds of revelations crowd out George and Amalia's story.
The unwritten rule that the post-intermission portion of a play should be shorter than the pre-intermission portion is wildly flouted here. A tale that takes little more than 90 minutes to watch on film requires more than 21/2 hours in the theater, testing patience and derrieres.
Don't get me wrong: "Parfumerie" is entertaining and a great choice for adults looking for a romantic comedy with a holiday theme and a time-tested happy ending. (The ensnarled plot all gets sorted out on Christmas Eve.) It's also fascinating to encounter the more dour origins of a story that continues to enchant the popular imagination.
Best of all, the elegantly stocked set will have you eager to tackle your shopping list.
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.,
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Contact: (310) 746-4000 or http://www.thewallis.org
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes