One of my favourite Christmas films stars Jimmy Stewart. And no, I don't mean It's a Wonderful Life. I'm referring to Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 romantic classic The Shop Around the Corner, with Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as two bickering store clerks who have been unwittingly exchanging anonymous love letters.
So when I learned that Soulpepper Theatre was remounting its much-praised holiday production of Parfumerie, the Hungarian play on which the Hollywood movie is based, I let out a Messiah-style hallelujah. I'd missed the show's original 2009 staging, which The Globe's J. Kelly Nestruck pronounced "a delightful holiday treat."
Delightful it is, in many ways. First there's the made-for-Soulpepper English adaptation by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins. It reveals Miklos Laszlo's 1937 play – set in a Budapest gift shop during the Christmas season – to be richer and funnier than the Lubitsch film. That may be due partly to director Morris Panych's approach, which combines the legendary gentle "Lubitsch touch" with the rude vitality and slapstick of another great Hollywood comedy director from the period, Preston Sturges.
Then there's the surprise casting of Oliver Dennis and Patricia Fagan as the romantic leads. The two actors are no Stewart-Sullavan pairing – the wiry, balding Dennis is usually cast in scene-stealing second-banana roles. But that only makes them more believable and endearing. And besides, they prove a great male-female Odd Couple, as Dennis's fussy, smug George engages in an ongoing sales-floor battle with Fagan's careless, wisecracking Rosie.
The play's ironic conceit is that, as unknowing pen pals sending each other tender missives via post office boxes, the two have found a marriage of true minds. But it's more than a clever joke. By contrasting their intellectual sympathies with their clashing personalities, Laszlo reminds us that unlike an epistolary affair, a real relationship is seldom perfect, depending as much on compromise as compatibility.
The theme of not knowing the person you love also plays out in the near-tragic subplot involving Hammerschmidt (Joseph Ziegler), the shop's owner. Tipped off by an anonymous letter of another kind, he learns that his wife of 35 years is having an affair with one of his employees. Ziegler plays this devastated cuckold as a bewildered, broken-hearted man. It's an inward, quietly moving performance in contrast to the rest of the play's comic hurly-burly.
That's another of the delights here: the way the script and actors dance nimbly on the slender hyphen in the term "comedy-drama." Even when Ziegler's Hammerschmidt is recovering from a suicide attempt, he still engages in some amusing byplay with the shop's overweening apprentice (a hyperkinetic Jeff Lillico).
Hammerschmidt's shop is stocked with a wide variety of employees, furnishing an excellent showcase for Soulpepper's ensemble.
An outstanding Michael Simpson radiates both warmth and anxiety as the avuncular but timid Sipos, George's confidante – a family man whose fear for his job sets the plot's wheels in motion. Kevin Bundy as the dashing heel Kadash and Maev Beaty as the flirtatious Miss Ratz are spot-on as the shallow, conventionally attractive counterparts to George and Rosie. And playwright-actor Robins makes much of the small role of Miss Molnar, the old-maid cashier, who turns out to be carrying a torch for Hammerschmidt.
The production's design is scrumptious eye candy. Ken MacDonald's gift-shop set, with its cherry-pink walls and chocolate mouldings, is like a giant Christmas bonbon. Bonnie Beecher's lighting suffuses it with a soft winter glow. Composer Mike Ross puts us in an Old World mood with lushly romantic strains that are at once melancholic and silly. And Ross, on accordion, and violinist Miranda Mulholland play much of the score onstage as a pair of colourful Roma buskers.
Parfumerie is a timeless tale that is all the more pertinent in the age of online courtship – indeed, it inspired the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com You've Got Mail. But this revival reveals how charming, wise and deeply human the original play is. Soulpepper couldn't have given us a better holiday gift.
Parfumerie runs until Dec. 31.
- Written by Miklos Laszlo
- Adapted by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins
- Directed by Morris Panych,
- Starring Oliver Dennis and Patricia Fagan
- At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto