The legend is that Hungarian-born playwright Melchior Lengyel sold MGM the story for the 1939 Greta Garbo-Melvyn Douglas romantic comedy classic Ninotchka (for which he was later nominated for an Academy Award) with a three-sentence pitch at a poolside conference in Hollywood.
“Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris,” he is alleged to have said. “She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all.”
Whatever the case, the movie, written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, was so successful that it ultimately prompted Lengyel to make a stage adaptation of his own idea.
It’s that version of the Ninotchka fable – later retold in the 1957 musical Silk Stockings, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse – that White Rock Players Club is opening this Friday (June 8) at 8 p.m. at Coast Capital Playhouse.
Ninotchka is infrequently revived, as award-winning veteran director Dale Kelly pointed out (in fact, the last time the White Rock Players staged it was in 1984, such a long time ago that this writer – full disclosure – was cast in the lead role of Parisian lawyer Leon Dagoult).
But Kelly said the play still preserves a moment in pre-Second World War history when free nations, as exemplified by the hedonistic ‘city of light’, preferred to battle their fears of the totalitarian regimes of Communist Russia and Nazi Germany with satirical humour.
“I think the comedy holds up well,” he said. “But rather than being about the big geo-political picture of the time, it’s really about the romance of two opposites falling in love.”
There’s still a lot of fun to be had, he added, with the story of Soviet envoy Ninotchka (Donnub Jafarzadeh), sent to Paris to expedite the return of works of art spirited out of Russia, following the 1917 revolution, by members of the deposed Romanov royal family.
Negotiations with one of these exiles, Princess Stephanie (Rebecca Sutherland, last seen in the farce Don’t Dress For Dinner) have hit a roadblock, largely due to the work of her astute lawyer, and lover, the previously-mentioned Leon (played by Tomas Gamba, also seen to advantage in Don’t Dress For Dinner).
Leon has accurately judged Ninotchka’s predecessors – Babinski (Bryce Mills), Brankov (Kelly Thompson) and Ivanov (Adam Piercy) – to be well-meaning bumblers, all-too-ready to be thrown off-course by the heady charms of French cuisine, French champagne and a veritable smorgasbord of other forbidden delights.
That changes with the arrival of no-nonsense, party-line Ninotchka, more than ready to crack the whip for the erring Russian envoys, and convinced that she can overcome Leon’s influence.
At the same time, the lawyer is entranced by someone outside his own experience, and intrigued by the suspicion that there is a vibrant woman beneath the dogma and the Soviet uniform.
Naturally, sparks are struck between the sparring adversaries that can only lead to romance.
As with all such souffles, a lot depends on the playing, Kelly acknowledged.
“It’s an interesting, challenging play, but, fortunately we’ve gotten together a very good cast,” he said.
Jafarzadeh and Gamba have natural chemistry, he said, which overcomes the incontrovertible reality that he is a rather tall actor and she can best be described as ‘petite’.
“I wasn’t sure how well it would work on stage, but I think it does,” Kelly said. “It makes it very interesting how dominant she is around all the other characters.”
No need to fear that the Montreal-trained actress, who cut her teeth in Shakespeare roles, is being overshadowed in her White Rock debut, Kelly said.
“She’s playing it very strong, and she needs to,” he said. “And, at the same time, she is doing a really good job of playing Ninotchka’s softer, more emotional side.”
As well as a range of vocal characteristics (“everyone seems to be getting on top of their accents,” he noted) Kelly said he has tried to bring out physical comedy – particularly in regard to the bumbling Russian envoys.
Babinski, he said, is the most leader-like of the trio – which is not saying much – while Brankov (played as female in this version) is more of a glutton.
“We’ve given her outfit a lot of pockets to stuff food in,” he said.
Most innocent of the three is Ivanov who is virtually the definition of guileless, Kelly said (“whenever Leon wants to find out what’s really going on, he asks Ivanov, because he’s the worst liar of the three, and most likely to stay closest to the truth”).
“They’re kind of like the Three Stooges,” Kelly said. “In a lot of the dialogue we have them echoing each other, or saying the last word of someone else.”
The theatre is located at 1532 Johnston Rd. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets ($22, $19 students and seniors) are available from the box office 604-536-7535, or online at whiterockplayersclub.ca