Ask playwright and television screenwriter/producer, Adam Pettle why he and actor/writer Brenda Robins decide to create another adaptation of Miklos Laszlos’ 1937 romantic play Parfumerie and his response is matter-of-fact.
Robins, a friend and colleague, who is a classic movie buff, realized that this oft-retold tale about two shop clerks who bicker throughout the day but at night unwittingly write anonymous love letters to one another, still moved audiences.
Interested in bringing the show to Toronto, she approached Soulpepper’s artistic director Albert Schultz about creating an adaptation of Parfumerie for his company. Schultz was interested but since Robins was a novice writer, he advised her to team up with an experienced professional.
Robins tapped Pettle on the shoulder. Not only was he glad to work with his friend and to see her through the project but he thought that this old world romance could be a success. “It’s an aspirational, feel good story with great holiday potential”, he explains.
Though he began his career as a playwright, writing Therac 25, Zaidie’s Shoes, Sunday Father, and Rattle the Bones among others, over he past eight years Pettle has been producing and writing for television. Currently he is the show runner and executive producer for Raising Hope, a CTV drama series. Much of his current work involves bringing together and shaping the final scripts for the series’ shows. He took a similar role when working with Robins.
Since Robins initiated the project and brought in the budget for the story she led the writing. Pettle says, “Brenda would send me drafts of the work and I would make suggestions or edits. Brenda is a wonderful actor, who brought a beginner’s mind to scriptwriting. She was more loose and free in her approach, while I was more aware of structure, so was able to dramaturge and help shape her play.”
Pettle describes their adaptation as a marriage of a certain kind of European sensibility, along the lines of Chekhov or Molière, with romantic comedy. He calls the result, “a warm and witty play with some darker moments.”
Laszlo’s original work is a romance but also an homage to the people and places of his hometown, Budapest, before World War II. Though laced with humour, the script does not shy from alluding to citizens’ fears of what looms ahead.
“Our adaptation,” explains Pettle, “successfully brought together a love story that at times reveals characters’ concerns and longing. Sometimes the play switches mood on the turn of a dime. This is something I’m drawn to; bringing comedy and tragedy to play side by side.”
Pettle observes that Toronto audiences seem to enjoy the family feeling of the play and the romance at its centre. He feels, too, that audiences take pleasure in watching the folks on stage enjoying the festive season, just as they currently are. Specifically, he thinks it is the expression of family spirit as embodied by the clan of the perfume shop owner, Hammerschmidt, that touches audiences. He adds that unlike many romantic comedies, Laszlo’s play has, “fine three-dimensional characterizations that give the story more depth.”
Pettle’s prediction that the play would be a success was correct but neither he nor Robins imagined that it would become a perennial favourite. The show sold out during the last few seasons.
He attributes this positive reception to the talents of the theatre artists who brought the world of Parfumerie to life under the leadership of director Morris Panych. “Ken MacDonald, the set designer has created a gorgeous perfume shop with lush details, there are musicians on stage that perform original pieces by composer Mike Roth, there’s a sense of entering another era.”
Asked what aspect of the play talks to him most, Pettle takes a moment to reflect then says, “The story speaks to me because it is about believing in and finding true love.” He then adds, “As a writer, I find that because the lovers come to know one another and are attracted to one another through the written word the story really speaks to me.”
Parfumerie runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre on various dates starting Dec. 11.