Here’s a question for romantic comedy buffs. When is the last time you saw a stage play that drew you into its spell and held you throughout laughter (and a tear or two) to a picture perfect fade-out in the same way that romcom favorites like You’ve Got Mail, While You Were Sleeping, and Notting Hill have been doing for decades on the silver screen. It’s been years since this reviewer (and romcom lover) has seen a comedy as intoxicatingly romantic as Don Gordon’s Panache, now in the homestretch of its six-week run at San Pedro’s Little Fish Theatre. As I write this review, you’ve got only two more chances not to miss out on his romantic comedy gem.

 Adhering to romcom conventions in the savviest of ways, Panache takes two mirror opposites, gives them one of the cutest “meet-cutes” ever, allows initial friction to turn ever-so slowly to irresistible attraction, all the while keeping us in suspense as to whether the couple (like Meg and Tom or Sandra and Bill or Julia and Hugh before them) will get that Hollywood happy ending we’ve been rooting for.

In this case, it’s Little Fish regulars (and real-life couple) Holly Baker-Kreiswirth and Bill Wolski who star as Scarsdale socialite Kathleen Trafalgar and Brooklyn short-order cook Harry Baldwin, about the least likely couple of strangers to make the other’s acquaintance, let alone fall for each other.

Fortunately for us, playwright Gordon has confectioned a way to bring them together in Harry’s mess of an apartment and then let the sparks fly.

It seems, you see, that the set of personalized New York license plates Kathleen has ordered in tribute to her husband’s charisma and flair have arrived with a misprint. What she asked for was PANACHE. What she got was PANCAKE.

 Thanks to friends in the right places, Kathleen has located the owner of those PANACHE plates, and she’s journeyed to the boonies of Brooklyn to restore them to their rightful owner—namely herself, a woman who just like Goldie Hawn’s Joanna Stayton in Overboard, is accustomed to getting exactly what she wants.

Trouble is, Harry has had those PANACHE plates for three years now, and there’s no way he’s going to give them up, particularly since in his own not-so-humble opinion, he’s got every bit as much panache as Kathleen’s hubby could possibly have. When Kathleen protests, Harry sets out to prove himself right by employing one of Hollywood’s favorite conventions, the flashback.

It turns out that when Harry was in college, a group of his friends had come up with a practical joke sure to provide an evening’s laughs—at the expense of campus nerd Irwin Alcott (Frank Weidner). They will convince Irwin that he’s got a prom date with one of the school’s most popular co-eds, then hide in the trees outside his dorm and watch in cruel glee as his joyous excitement turns into doubt and then despair.

 Fortunately for Irwin, Harry, in a gesture revealing a heart just about as golden as they get, persuades a gorgeous waitress named Laura (Kristin Towers-Rowles) to be Irwin’s date, thereby making his Mean Guy buddies the butt of their own joke. And doesn’t that trump whatever panache Kathleen’s husband might possibly possess?

As for what happens next, far be it from this reviewer to spoil the many surprises playwright Gordon has up his sleeve.

 Panache has been around for more than a decade. A 1999 Pasadena production starring Lisa Pelikan and Eric Pierpoint transferred to off-Broadway in 2000 with its two leads intact, and has since had numerous regional professional, community and dinner theater, theater-in-the-round, and college productions, though why it remains unpublished and unfilmed is anyone’s guess, Gordon’s script being head-and-tails more captivating than just about any Hollywood romcom you’ve seen in the ten years or so since it made its stage debut.

It helps, of course, to have South Bay’s finest director, Stephanie Coltrin, in charge of the proceedings at Little Fish, proving herself every bit as adept at helming an intimate romantic comedy as she’s has been at directing big Broadway-scale musicals, or at staging more serious works by Edward Albee, Yasmina Reza, and Shakespeare.

It helps, too, that Panache’s two stars are about as likeable and talented a couple as you’re likely to see on any local stage any time soon. Like Sally Field before her, Baker-Kriesworth proves herself capable of much more than her “Gidget-next-door” persona, playing deliciously against type as sophisticated, snooty, self-centered Kathleen, and because we can’t help falling under Baker-Kriesworth’s spell, we can’t help liking Kathleen, even at her rich-bitchiest. Wolski, unrecognizable as the same actor who played seductive English cad George Love in last year’s Tryst, has the blue-collar charm and sex appeal of Overboard’s Kurt Russell or Working Girl’s Alec Baldwin, making us fall for Harry even at his most uncouth. And both Baker-Kriesworth and Wolski have dramatic chops to match their comedic talents, the better to play Panache’s more tear-jerking moments.

 The trio supporting Baker-Kriesworth and Wolski are pretty darn terrific as well. Cody Lyman is Brooklyn Guy perfect as Harry’s poker-and-drinking buddy Jumbo Dombroski, and like his two co-stars, Lyman reveals sides to Jumbo we might not initially suspect him of having. The marvelous Weidner is very personification of nerdiness as Irwin, a character who Gordon’s ingenious script later turns sophisticate, thereby allowing Weidner to show whole new facets to the character. Finally, the  luscious Towers-Rowles makes the very most of Laura’s relatively brief stage time, her spell lingering throughout (though Gordon’s script does give the multiple Scenie-winner a chance to return in deliciously ditzy mode).

Little Fish’s crackerjack design team makes the very most of the San Pedro theatre’s fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Scenic designer Christopher Beyries gives us the quintessential slob’s apartment, carefully detailed to reveal much about its owner. Rachel Fishman’s lighting is exquisite, and never more so than when she places Kathleen and Harry—and the audience—smack-dab in the middle of a starry, starry night. Kathy Hardoy’s costumes tell us almost as much about the folks who are wearing them as do Gordon’s words. Finally, sound designer Baker-Kreiswirth has compiled a musical underscoring so exquisite, you will wish there were a soundtrack CD you could take home with you.

Coltrin is producer and Will Pruett stage manager.

With only two performances remaining, I can’t think of a better show to see tonight and tomorrow than Panache, by far the best (and most moving, powerful, surprising, poetic, memorable) romantic comedy I’ve seen onstage in years! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be on the edge of your seat, and if you’re anything like this reviewer, you’ll gush with superlatives.

Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro.

–Steven Stanley
May 24, 2012
Photos: Mickey Elliot

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