In 1930, when films began the transformation from silent to talkies, the Association of Motion Picture Producers instituted the Hays Code to prevent movies from supposedly corrupting the nation with bad values. One of its principles prevented films from ridiculing the law or glorifying anyone who violates it. And so it comes as no surprise that Ernst Lubitsch's classic 1932 comedy Trouble in Paradise was pulled from circulation soon after it was released. Like its lovable main characters, con artists Gaston (Jeremy Shamos) and Lily (Nina Hellman), it delights in breaking all the rules. The original film has been flawlessly recreated for the stage by director Elyse Singer and writer David Simpatico, who referred to both Samson Raphaelson's screenplay and Aladar Laszlo's stage play The Honest Finder in conceiving this production, now at the Hudson Guild Theater.
The play opens in the gray Art Deco lobby of an upscale hotel. We see the shadows of two men talking behind a white curtain when, suddenly, one clubs the other over the head. As he falls to the floor, the assailant steals his wallet. In the next scene we see the smooth con artist, Gaston, smiling at his own cleverness, clearly the one responsible for the crime.
Later that night he meets his soul mate, Lily, a woman with similar talents who admires his accomplished criminal record. Their courtship unfolds over a dinner conversation loaded with sexual innuendo and an unusual flirtation: the lifting of each other's personal possessions, culminating in the theft of a garter belt.
The story then jumps ahead two years to show Gaston and Lily living together contentedly in a life of petty theft and minor heists. Everything changes the day Gaston meets Madame Colet (Carolyn Baueumler), a wealthy French perfume heiress who is careless with her money and expensive jewels. Gaston and Lily formulate a plan to steal her fortunes by masquerading as her employees. It does not take long for Madame Colet to hire the handsome and charming Gaston to be her personal secretary, and Lily to be his assistant. But as the scam proceeds, Gaston comes to realize that he is falling in love with Madame Colet.
Trouble in Paradise's most enjoyable feature is its ability to transport the audience back to its original 1930's setting. The costumes, props, set, and soundtrack are all reminiscent of a different era and a gentler Hollywood. Simpatico tips his hat to the old film's director by periodically stopping the action onstage to inject Lubitsch's booming voice into the story, providing directions, period-relevant comments, or murmurs of disgust if an actor or actress has butchered the lines.
This theatrical adaptation would make Lubitsch proud, as the jokes and punch lines consistently hit their mark. The entire cast had the audience roaring its approval, as reliably as a laugh track.
As a con with his back constantly against the wall, Gaston has to do a lot of fast talking. His dialogue is packed with complicated words and phrases that glide effortlessly off Shamos's tongue with accuracy, wit, and mind-blowing speed. Hellman plays his partner in crime, Lily, as an alluring, savvy woman, but with a layer of insecurity that surfaces when she is around the impeccably groomed Madame Colet. The funniest scenes pit the two women against each other, when Lily silently fumes in her role as an underling assistant forced to listen to her mink-clad boss speak lustfully of Gaston.
Because of the film, this production comes to the stage with a built-in audience. During the performance it was not unusual to hear people laughing in the middle of a joke, or before a new scene began. But for those who have not seen the movie, the play is a special treat; they will have the enviable experience of witnessing a comic masterpiece unfold for the first time.
It is unfortunate the original movie was a victim of its time, banished from theaters when it should have been honored. Luckily, it has resurfaced here with Simpatico's wonderful stage version, giving today's audiences the chance to enjoy a classic romantic comedy that was almost lost in time.