Sparks fly in Benchmark’s regional premiere of lighthearted romantic comedy

Parfumerie at the Benchmark Theatre in Lakewood offers a delightful and refreshing break from the typical Christmas repertoire. While the main plot of the romantic comedy might be a bit predictable, it still hits the sweet spot with just enough tartness to avoid any lingering sugar hangover.

There are really two storylines playing concurrently in this script, which takes place in a Budapest perfume and personal items shop around Christmas. The central relationship is between two bickering co-workers, George Horvath and Amalia Balash, who are constantly at odds with each other. But unbeknown to the two of them, they are actually each other’s pen pals whose love for each other has bloomed during their nearly two-year exchange.

At the same time, the theme of not knowing the person you love also plays out in the near-tragic subplot involving the shop’s owner, Mr. Hammerschmidt, who learns through an anonymous letter that his wife of 35 years is having an affair with one of his employees.

Parfumerie

Perry Lewis (Mr. Sipos) and Ryan Stack (George Horvath) in the Benchmark Theatre production of ‘Parfumerie.’ Photo: McLeod9 Creative

Familiar storyline

If the main storyline sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The original script was written by Miklos Laszlo, a Jewish émigré from Hungary, before he fled Europe in 1938. (It’s interesting to note that subtle sub-themes of workplace dynamics and the class system from his time in Europe are woven throughout the play.) In 1956, Laszlo and his wife Florence collaborated on an English translation, which was later adapted by their nephew E.P. Dowdall and produced as a play in 2009.

But the main storyline featured in Parfumerie has been interpreted by several others over the years. The Broadway musical She Loves Me opened in New York in 1963 and has become a beloved musical staple that was revived on Broadway in 2016. Hollywood also found the play and adapted it for the 1940 film, “The Shop Around the Corner” starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan and the 1949 July Garland-Van Johnson musical, “The Good Old Summertime.”

And in what might be the most familiar to most of us, it surfaced again in 1998 as “You’ve Got Mail” featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. In this modernized version of the play, the penned love letters become email exchanges between the two main characters.

Witty and lighthearted

Don’t be fooled by what may sound like a dark comedy at times. There are plenty of witty, laugh-out-loud moments to keep it lighthearted. The script and actors nimbly segue from drama to comedy as the plot thickens. In the last half, the emotions are running high and the action becomes frenetic and physical enough that it almost becomes slapstick. But the deep emotions and genuine concern the characters have for each other keep it from going over the top.

The scenery, though fairly simple considering it is a retail shop with merchandise, portrays the elegance of an upscale shop with subtle scrolls and ornate work. With three entrance points (a front door, office and backroom) there is a nice flow throughout the play that allows smooth transitions between scenes.

The set also takes full advantage of the closeness and intimacy of the audience, with the characters sitting on an ottoman facing the audience at several points as they share their confidences.

Sparks fly

Another reason that the Benchmark production is a stand-out is the chemistry between the actors. Director Rachel Rogers, who shares the producer title with Haley Johnson, has done an excellent job of assembling the cast. At the heart of the play is the tension between Horvath (Ryan Omar Stack) and Balash (Emma Rebecca Maxfield). And the sparks fly between the two actors almost as soon as they hit the stage together.

Both do an admirable job of ramping up their characters as casual dislike becomes direct antagonism. Horvath, in particular, has some harsh words for his co-worker and dangerously teeters on becoming a jerk. But Stack manages to keep it reined in and prevent the scene from damaging his character and making him unlikeable.

Stack, who is a member of the Benchmark Theatre Leadership Company, is coming off two years as a Lewis Myers Scholar at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and let’s hope we see more of him in the Denver theatre scene.

Maxfield’s character, Balash, seems a bit defensive at first. But as the two’s histrionics become stronger, she rises to the occasion and we begin to see the very spirit that made Horvath fall in love with her during their correspondence. It’s this equality that keeps the antagonism from becoming negative. And Maxfield doesn’t miss a beat. She demonstrates her broad range as she shifts from a mild ingenue with her co-workers to a fiery adversary who goes toe-to-toe with Horvath.

Veteran Denver actor Tim Fishbaugh serves as the anchor of the play as Mr. Hammerschmidt, the owner of the shop. He deftly moves from the autocratic businessman at the start to become a bewildered and broken-hearted man emerging from his soul searching to discover what truly matters. Fishbaugh plays the role with a gentle strength and humility that nicely counter balances the more comedic and emotional characters caught up in their own lives.

Perry Lewis as Mr. Sipos, Horvath’s co-worker and confidante, might be the scene-stealer of the show. His anxious and subordinate demeanor hides a genuinely concerned friend who is desperately trying to protect his own family. Lewis brings a warmth and vitality to Sipos and by the end he almost takes on a slapstick approach as he plays cupid to his two lovestruck co-workers. (In fact, my companion likened him to Clem Kadiddlehopper, one of the regular characters played by the late comedian Red Skelton.)

Christopher Robin Donaldson plays the upwardly mobile bicycle delivery boy Arpad with an energy and enthusiasm that is delightful. His youthful demeanor is the opposite of the oily opportunist, deftly played by Drew Hirshboeck with dramatic flair and a devious glint in his eye. And Maggy Stacy as the flirtatious Miss Ritter is also spot-on.

Perfumerie provides a light-hearted break from the typical Christmas fare even if the plot may be as familiar as that “other” Christmas standard (you know, the one that taught us the meaning of “bah humbug”).

Parfumerie is the sixth and final production of Benchmark Theatre’s 2019 season.