Arye Gross knew his holiday schedule included acting in a Christmas play. He had no idea it would be a different one at a new performing arts venue with another director.
Gross currently co-stars in Parfumerie, the inaugural theatrical production of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, adapted by E.P. Dowdall from the Hungarian play Illatszertár by Miklós László and directed by Mark Brokaw. The cast features Richard Schiff, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Deborah Ann Woll.
He was supposed to be at the Geffen Playhouse, reprising his 2012 role as Mr. Abramowitz in Donald Margulies’ Coney Island Christmas, which was to be the Geffen’s annual holiday show following its premiere last December. Instead, citing “scheduling conflicts,” the Geffen is presenting Bette Midler’s solo show I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, which ran on Broadway this past spring.
“You know, it’s a beautiful play,” says Gross about Coney Island Christmas, while seated in the Annenberg’s green room on a rainy Friday after Thanksgiving. “I’ve got a Google alert for it and in the past couple of days there are about five theaters around the country that are doing it. I’m very happy for Donald. He and I had an exchange just days before I got the offer to do this play. We were talking about sitting shiva for Coney Island Christmas not happening again at the Geffen, but then this came along.”
“This” being the 1930s romantic comedy that inspired the films The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, You’ve Got Mail and the Broadway musical She Loves Me. Set during Christmastime in a 1937 Budapest perfume boutique, the play and its subsequent versions feature two embattled employees, each of whom has been writing love letters to an anonymous correspondent — without realizing that they have been writing to each other.
Gross admits surprise at the odds of acting in two back-to-back Christmas productions set in historical eras. “I didn’t see this coming, you know? I didn’t see playing Jews in two Christmas plays on the Westside in a row. It seemed like a long shot.”
Audiences know the LA native from his more-than-35-year career starring in films (Soul Man to Grey Gardens), television (Ellen to Castle) and theater (The Time of Your Life to Brooklyn Boy). He studied acting at South Coast Repertory’s conservatory, became a member of its company and went on to appear in numerous productions there including Margulies’ Brooklyn Boy, which transferred to Broadway in 2005. A veteran of countless shows at various LA theaters, he is a member of Antaeus Company (Mrs. Warren’s Profession) and was the former artistic director of the award-winning Stages Theatre Center in Hollywood from 2000-2003.
Noting the return of The Lion King to the Pantages, Gross agrees that participating in the Annenberg’s inaugural theatrical production has a certain “circle of life” quality to it. He performed in SCR’s 1978 mounting of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, which inaugurated its new Fourth Step 507-seat theater. Then there’s the Tisch sculpture garden.
“Here’s this magnificent [Annenberg] complex and right outside the [Bram Goldsmith] theater doors is the Jamie Tisch sculpture garden,” Gross explains. “She’s married to Steve Tisch who produced [the 1986 film] Soul Man. He’s the guy who said, ‘You know what? I think we can use you.’ Steve kind of gave me my break.”
Not Merely a Meringue
Gross warns that while Parfumerie may seem like merely a confection, it has more serious underpinnings. Though the play is set in Budapest in December 1937, before World War II started, inklings of the upcoming fate of the Jews can be felt. The playwright himself fled Hungary in 1938, as anti-Jewish laws were going into effect.
“It’s a pretty interesting play,” he offers. “It’s a comedy but it has its deep bass notes about the kind of slice-of-life struggles in these people’s lives. It’s a Christmas play, but it takes place in this moment historically where no one knew what was about to happen. While the play doesn’t go into it, if you research it [you can] find out why is it that the policeman comes in the first scene and says that if we don’t want to get in trouble, we have to shut down because we are 20 minutes past the 8:00 curfew. But people are still talking about the fact that they are going to go out and they are going to the movies.”
Gross says that at that time, half the merchants in Budapest were Jewish and they were under a curfew. Jewish shops were required to close before other shops. The following year, the number of those shops dropped to 20% then 5%. Within 18 months, there were a quarter million unemployed Jews in Budapest.
“Hence the character I’m playing, Sipos, has this extraordinary anxiety about losing his job in this place. His life and his family depend on it. So if you just read the play, it feels like, well, the guy is worried about losing his job. But if you look at it in the historical context, he will not have money to escape. He will never be able to get a job again, because there are no jobs because they are forbidden. So there’s all this heavy stuff underneath, but it’s this lighter-than-air thing, you know?”
The new English adaptation by playwright László’s nephew E.P Dowdall restored the play to its original form, which equally juxtaposes the troubled marriage of the shop owner with the plight of the young lovers. That, coupled with the news of wars and strife from surrounding countries, gives the play a contemporary resonance.
“Sipos has a speech about why he takes being yelled at [by the boss], and he says, compared to what was happening in the world, what does it matter?” says Gross. “In the 1930s, thousands were facing starvation every day, neighboring countries are constantly at war…we’re rehearsing this while getting news about the hurricane in the Philippines and what’s going on in Syria. So all of it is perfectly resonant. It looks like a meringue but it’s really meaty.”
Gross is also enjoying the fact that the play is not ironic. “The characters don’t operate at a remove from their circumstance. No one’s cool. The birth of the cool has not happened yet and it’s kind of a relief.”
Recreating a Parfumerie
Director Mark Brokaw steps into the green room for a moment to use the microwave. His production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is currently running on Broadway. He’s also noted for the original New York productions of Lynda Barry’s The Good Times Are Killing Me, Douglas Carter Beane’s As Bees in Honey Drown, Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Mile Ride, Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth and Lobby Hero, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and The Long Christmas Ride Home, among others.
“I’m so lucky, it’s a fantastic cast,” says Brokaw, as he stops to briefly chat. “And we are especially lucky to have him,” indicating Gross with a smile. “It’s really a great group and I’m having a fantastic time with them.”
When asked about the full-scale parfumerie recreated on stage, Brokaw says, “It’s based on one that is on Andrássy Avenue [in Budapest]. It’s a historic landmark and is a parfumerie still. That is in the back and it’s modernized in the front.”
A realistic Budapest street scene is visible from the shop’s two front windows. Brokaw explains before walking out that it’s “a photograph our set designer [Allen Moyer] found. It’s actually Váci Street.”
“There are thousands of hand props in this, and that’s not an exaggeration,” adds Gross. “I saw someone cutting out endless labels for the fake products. It’s incredible. I’ve never worked on something with this level of attention to detail in the set props and the clothing.”
Grateful for the Grace
Gross admits that he’s been living the working actor’s dream right now, neatly balancing meaty theatrical, film and television roles — from his recurring role as Sidney Perlmutter on ABC’s Castle to a glowing New York Times review for the 2010 film Harvest to a recently announced role in the premiere of Bernard Weinraub’s play Above the Fold, which is being directed by Steve Robman and will open February 2 at Pasadena Playhouse.
“I’m one of the most fortunate actors out there, I think,” he admits. “In the past 10 years, I’ve really gotten to work on wonderful projects with great people and…without a lot of effort on my part!” He laughs.
Gross did a reading of Above the Fold for the Playhouse’s Hothouse series before doing Coney Island Christmas last year. He says he’s glad it’s moving into full production.
“I think it’s a very interesting and timely play. “When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, the comment from The Onion was ‘Nation Stunned as Man Buys Newspaper.’ So that’s sort of the heart of it. What will these organizations do to stay in business?”
When asked whether running another theater company is something he’d consider doing again, Gross turns philosophical. “I didn’t have a lifelong dream to run a theater, but at the moment that it came up, it was absolutely the right thing to do at that time. It may be again. [Stages founder] Paul Verdier made such an impact on theater in Los Angeles and was such a big part of my theatrical education. It kind of connects to this play, because there’s a style to it that I learned from Paul.
“But everything about running a theater, I learned at SCR from Martin Benson and Leo Collin and Norman [Godfrey], the facilities manager…these guys made me learn how a theater works when I just wanted to act.”
Gross credits acting teacher Roy London with offering a guiding principle. “I remember him saying at least a couple of times that there’s no failure in anything you’re trying to do. That the only failure is the failure to engage. So try. If it doesn’t go the way you want it to, well, you’ve learned things.
“That idea, that the only failure is the failure to engage, is something I’ve tried to live by and live in…yes.”
Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills 90210. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Dec. 22. Tickets: $49-129. www.thewallis.org. 310-746-4000.
**All Parfumerie production photos by Jim Cox.