Theater in Beverly Hills?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

I spent a lot of time during Parfumerie, the inaugural theater production at the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, pondering exactly why they chose the play.

After all, the opening of a new theater in Los Angeles is a big deal. The project has been kicking around for more than a decade. Architecturally the anchor is the grand entry hall of the old Beverly Hills Post Office. The new theater is comparable in size to the Geffen or the Broad. So what would this first show tell us?

Parfumerie, written by the Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo in 1937, is set in a Budapest perfume shop right before Christmas. Our cast of characters -- the employees of the shop. It's a staid 1930's rom-com: there's an affair, a breakup, and a budding romance fueled by anonymous love letters. This last plot line you might recognize as the source for the films like You've Got Mail.

The production values? In a word: opulent. The set is literally gilded. While I've never seen a perfume shop from 1930's Budapest, I'd venture a guess that this is an accurate reproduction. This was not a cheap set. On top of that the production has a cast of fifteen. Again, not cheap.

So what does it all add up to? Why'd they pick the play?

There's part of it that feels like a perfect fit: A high-end perfume shop; a theater built in an old post office doing a play where the love story is propelled by letters. But those two geographic coincidences don't support the play's two and a half hours. The characters spend the bulk of the play engaged in what amounts to retail busywork. They are constantly, and somewhat inexplicably, rearranging: moving tins, dusting counters, facing product. Directorally, it's a smart choice because it masks that there's not much going on dramatically line by line.

Now it's not fair to make any play represent an entire theater but the first play should give us a hint about a theater's artistic mission. What I'm left with is more questions.

How does the Wallis fit into and change the LA theater ecosystem? Are we finding ourselves hyper-regionalized? Do we now have a separate theater for each wealthy neighborhood: the Broad for Santa Monica, the Geffen for Brentwood, and now the Wallis for Beverly Hills? What about the Taper (Back when The Geffen opened the concern was will anyone still drive downtown. Now what?)

There's something exciting about theater becoming more rooted to community and specific audiences but what exactly does it mean to make theater for Beverly Hills? I'm reminded of a cautionary essay that appeared in Harper's a few years ago. The theoretical question posed was, 'Why wasn't there any good theater in Santa Barbara?' The conclusion? In an Eden, there is no need for theater, for theater speaks to a deeper sense of unrest.

Let's hope for Los Angeles and the Wallis that the essay was more of an exercise than a prophecy.

Parfumerie plays at the Wallis in Beverly Hills through December 22.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Banner image: Arye Gross and Eddie Kaye Thomas in Parfumerie. Photo: Jim Cox