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THEATER REVIEW: "Parfumerie"

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"Parfumerie" presented by Screen Plays at MuCCC starting December 13 and continuing through this weekend, is an unexpected holiday treat. The original play by Hungarian writer Miklos Laszlo premiered in 1937, but was never produced in English until 2009, translated by Laszlos's nephew, E.P. Dowdall. That's the script Screen Plays is producing, and I assume it's faithful to the original.

If "Parfumerie" is not well-known, the story is: the plot has served three American movies ("The Shop Around the Corner," "In the Good old Summertime," and "You've Got Mail") and one Broadway musical, Bock and Harnick's masterpiece "She Loves Me," recently revived by Eastman Opera Theatre.

These adaptations all hold up well, but it's rather nice to have the original in circulation: it holds up well, too. Don't expect the fast pace and snappy one-liners of a contemporary piece, but a leisurely, sentimental, and thoroughly pleasing romantic comedy. What could be nicer at the holidays?

Whether it's in a play, a movie, or a musical, set in Budapest or the Upper West Side, the plot remains the same:  two shop clerks who can't stand each other in person (Eddie Prunella and Laura Pratt) are gradually revealed to be lonely-hearts correspondents, anonymously sharing thoughts and emotions on paper while bickering constantly in real life. The truth is eventually revealed, of course, and they finally get together -- on Christmas Eve, too.

In a parallel plot, the shop owner (Michael H. Arve) -- in this case it's an upscale perfume and cosmetics boutique -- discovers that his wife has been having an affair with another shop clerk (Billy DeMetsenaere). The cast is filled out with other store employees (Stephen Cena, Kathy Coughenour, Mary Megan Reynolds, Jared Lee Morgan, J. Ian Reynolds) and numerous shoppers, most of them lightly sketched variations on the society-lady-with-money character.

It may not sound like much of a play, but it turns out to be a very tasty treat. Laszlo sets up the story and paces the play nicely, and makes the characters believable and likeable individuals. No matter how many times you've seen this story, it is always a pleasing surprise when you realize that Mr. Horvath realizes that Miss Balash is the "charming lady of the letters," to borrow a line from "She Loves Me." (One small but pleasing thing about this play is its courtly air; the characters almost always call each other "Mr." or "Miss.")

Screen Plays' "Parfumerie" is extremely well performed; this ensemble cast is as good as any I have seen lately. The lovers are charming: Eddie Prunella brings a shy quality and decency to the character of Mr. Horvath, and Laura Pratt's Amalia Balash is nervy but appealing. They start out the play furious with each other, and they seem like total opposites, so of course they're going to get together, and it is a very satisfying moment when they do.

As the slimy shop clerk who seduces the boss's wife, Billy DeMetsenaere plays the closest thing to a villain in this sunny play, and plays him to the hilt, giving his lady customers "meaningful" looks and ogling their bottoms when he isn't cadging money from his co-workers. When he finally is confronted and fired by the boss, it is very funny and quite satisfying. Stephen Cena provides many of the play's biggest laughs as the nervous Mr. Sipos, his face a perpetual worried frown and his comic timing spotless. As the cashier Miss Molnar, Kathy Coughenour creates a warm and kindly character in just a few lines.

Fans of "She Loves Me" may be disappointed that "Parfumerie" gives relatively little stage time to the put-upon character of Miss Ritter, but Mary Megan Reynolds makes her moments amusing.

The play gives quite a lot more time to Mr. Hammerschmidt, the shop owner, who is played by a perfectly cast Michael H. Arve. In the course of the play this character suffers an attempted suicide, a heart attack, a separation from his wife, and several epic bad moods, but he turns out just fine. He may be irascible, but as played by Arve, it's a nice kind of irascibility. Jared Lee Morgan is very funny as his bumptious delivery boy, Arpad; it was a nice idea of Laszlos's to give the play's last words not to the lovers, but to Arpad and Hammerschmidt.

This is simply a delightful bunch of people, and they are directed very effectively by Meredith Powell. (The shoppers are also pleasantly individual in tiny parts, with Charlotte Carroll a standout as "Adorable Toddler.") The detailed set, complete down to the last bottle of nail polish, provides a surprisingly large playing area and makes effective use of the level above the stage as well.

No matter how much you may like the adaptations, you will find "Parfumerie" touching and endearing. Elegant perfume shops may be replaced by malls, and handwritten love letters by e-mails and texting, but I think this show will always be appealing, particularly when it's performed this well.

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