Trouble in Paradise
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
June 19, 2006
Hourglass Group's rousing production of Trouble in Paradise is the perfect entertainment for a summer evening: it's breezy, light, and smooth. Adapted from the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film (screenplay by Grover Jones & Samson Raphaelson; in turn based on the play The Honest Finder by Aladar Laszlo) by playwright David Simpatico, Trouble in Paradise brings the Golden Age of innuendo-filled elegant comedy sashaying back in high style.
Gaston, a silky smooth con man, meets his match when Lily enters his orbit: she's a fellow grafter posing as a countess. The two exchange pleasantries (in other words, they pick each other's pockets), and soon thereafter fall in love and join forces. They set up shop in Paris, and quickly steal the diamond-studded purse of Madame Colet, who is the heiress to a vast perfume empire. When she publicly issues a reward for the return of her handbag, Gaston uses that as an excuse to get into Madame's good graces and get hired on as her assistant. Before long Gaston is out to steal more than Madame's money, Lily becomes rightfully jealous, and their criminal pasts catch up with them sooner than they expect.
Trouble in Paradise inhabits a rarefied world where people say things like, "Don't stop. Keep right on complaining. It's beautiful." When consulting the butler about that evening's party, Gaston tells him dinner must be marvelous: "We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous." This isn't door-slamming screwball comedy, its upper class comedy of manners. The jokes are subtle and dry, delivered more with wry looks than double takes. (Think William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, or the overall style of Lubitsch protégé Billy Wilder.) One can almost hear the martinis chilling all throughout this detailed production, directed beautifully by Elyse Singer. Buying wholeheartedly into the conventions of the genre, she creates a convincing upper-crust world complete with comic bon mots and turned-up noses. The action moves with effortless dexterity under her command, and the comedy is timed to droll perfection. Lauren Helpern's sublime art deco set and costume designer Theresa Squire's endless parade of gorgeous evening gowns and smart suits are the icing on the cake.
Playwright Simpatico transfers Trouble in Paradise from screen to stage with loving care, staying true to his source while adding his own complimentary touches. For instance, he adds a play-within-a-play framing device—interrupting the action from time to time, as if Lubitsch were shooting the actual movie—that helps put the story in a more historical perspective. The "actors" discuss events of the day, gossip about each other's salaries, and even mention The Group Theatre in passing. It's a nice touch. Otherwise, Simpatico keeps Trouble's story lean and tight, and lets the one-liners speak for themselves.
Steven Bernstein and the Millennial Territory Orchestra also contribute an original score that is terrific. Combining bouncy Django Reinhardt-esque guitar licks and a swinging Raymond Scott-type flavor, Bernstein and company add a valuable extra layer to the show.
As if it didn't already have enough going for it, the stellar cast of Trouble in Paradise is hilarious. Playing multiple roles, Liam Craig and Cynthia Darlow do a splendid job, while Henry Caplan, Gordon Stanley, and the wonderfully reliable Steven Rattazzi steal almost every scene they're in. Carolyn Baeumler and Nina Hellman are gloriously enticing as Madame Colet and Lily, respectively. And, Jeremy Shamos gives a star turn performance as the dapper and aloof Gaston.
For those of you craving a satisfying taste of yesteryear, Trouble in Paradise is the perfect dish. It goes down easy, fills one up, and leaves one completely fulfilled. Lubitsch would be proud.