Lily may exclaim of her lover Gaston, “I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob!” But Trouble in Paradise, from which Lily and Gaston hail, is an honest delight. A theatrical adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s champagne-frothy 1932 comedy, it concerns thieves-in-love Lily and Gaston and their proposed swindle of shapely perfume heiress Mariette. A triumph of pre-Code Hollywood, the screenplay has high spirits, ample innuendo, and an undemanding plot that make it suitable for stage transfer. (Indeed, the film was itself adapted from the Hungarian play The Honest Finder.)
With doubtful cleverness, director Elyse Singer and playwright David Simpatico have set the piece as a film in progress. A 1930s camera films much of the action and an offstage Germanic voice, presumably Lubitsch’s, introduces scenes with lines such as, “They may cut this in Chicago, but we try, ja?” The interludes are not unamusing so much as unnecessary. But not even such intrusions can blight Singer’s animated stagings or the actors’ charms—especially Jeremy Shamos as Gaston and Nina Hellman as Lily. With his wide brow and taut grin, Shamos radiates a debonair insouciance, and wide-eyed Hellman nearly outdoes him with her brassy guile. They’re such a marvelous pair onstage that one doesn’t envy Carolyn Baeumler as Mariette, Lily’s mark and possible romantic rival—particularly as Baeumler must pronounce all her Rs as Ws (e.g., “wobbewy,” “iwwetwievably”). But the supporting cast is allowed to lark about; Steven Rattazzi as Mariette’s suitor and Liam Craig as her put-upon butler are notably gamesome.
The director and designers have great fun with the piece’s upper-caste costumes and art deco milieu. Hellman’s gold lamé, Rattazzi’s stock garters, even an unpretentious telephone table threaten to steal the show (perhaps not such a surprise in a comedy about thievery). The bouncy, blurting jazz score by Steven Bernstein also makes away with one’s heart. Indeed, though we might quibble with the directorial conceit, Paradise is a fairly Edenic evening.