‘Tis the season so let us start with good tidings. For anyone who has not heard, the Wallis is the jewel of the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills and a welcome addition to the Westside arts scene. Entering the main lobby from Santa Monica Boulevard, you pass through the old Post Office building, a gracious WPA legacy of Italian Renaissance Revival design; descend the stairs and you are in the new interior lobby with an elegant bar and a glass wall that can open entirely onto a people-friendly sculpture garden; descend further to your seat and you are in a warm and welcoming 500-seat space with excellent acoustics, good sight lines, and fairly comfortable seats. Definitely a good beginning for any evening or afternoon of theater-going.
Allen Moyer’s set for “Parfumerie” is a gem to match this setting. A parfumerie is a shop featuring perfume, natch, and fancy cosmetics. Designed in elegant, early-20th-century style with male clerks wearing white chemist’s coats and female shopgirls in pink, biased-cut smocks of the 1930’s, the scene conjures up Budapest as the darkness of the Great War is casting its first shadow. The attention to detail is exquisite: just imagine the set decorator creating the 300 bottles of perfume that line the walls and Michael Krass (costume design) conjuring up the perfect cloches customers and shopgirls alike don when going outside.
Wouldst that my glad tidings could go on from here. Sadly, in all honesty, they cannot. Billed as a romantic comedy, “Parfumerie” is neither. The original 1930s play by Hungarian Miklos Laszlo has been adapted multiple times, most recently as the movie “You’ve Got Mail.” The current translation and stage adaptation by Lazlo’s nephew, E.P. Dowdall, focuses on the consequences to his staff of the disintegrating 25-year marriage of the aging proprietor, Mr. Hammerschmidt (Richard Schiff). Not a lot of romance or comedy there. Meanwhile, the subplot, which “You’ve Got Mail” mined for its romantic comedy potential, gets little attention. Mr. George Horvath (Eddie Kaye Thomas), one of Mr. Hammerschmidt’s clerks, and Miss Amalia Balash (Deborah Ann Wall), one of his shopgirls, have been openly squabbling like 8-year-olds who are attracted to one another (whilst carrying on secret pen-pal love affairs). The hitch is that neither realizes that the person to whom they are writing is the person opposite them in the shop. “Meet cute” is how it is described in Hollywood now.
For two and a half hours director Mark Brokaw has his actors declaiming at one another. The good news is that the dialogue is easy to hear. The bad news is that little actual emotion is conveyed. Pick on the employees because your marriage is going bad; squabble with the guy because you really are attracted to him. Even a spectacular set gets old after an act or two.
Romantic comedy is actually one of my guilty pleasures, but please give me romance I can feel and comedy that has me laughing and chuckling along. Sadly, “Parfumerie” is a pretty face without substance.