Style is more than window dressing; at its best it expresses a worldview. In the case of the classic Hollywood films directed by the German emigre Ernst Lubitsch ("The Shop Around the Corner," "To Be or Not to Be," "Ninotchka"), the filmmaker's signature touches - offhand glamour, bemused comic rhythms, unsentimental but enchanting sexual gamesmanship - embody a distinctively European worldliness just a tiptoe away from outright cynicism.
Few films epitomize the famed "Lubitsch touch" as well as the 1932 gem "Trouble in Paradise," about a pair of high-stakes thieves in a tangle of romance and deception with a gullible perfume heiress. The Hourglass Group's new stage adaptation, based on Samson Raphaelson's original screenplay, gets some of the details right and adds grace-notes of its own.
But it's a fool's errand to transplant Lubitsch's sleek Art Deco masterpiece to low-budget Off-Broadway. As if to acknowledge as much, director/conceiver Elyse Singer and writer David Simpatico have the actors break character whenever an offstage voice shouts, "Und ... cut! Wunderbar." A cameraman intermittently roves the periphery of Lauren Helpern's monochrome set, and stagehands flit in and out, but the notion that we're witnessing the making of the film is neither developed nor justified. Instead, these references only bolster the sense that this production was created by, and aimed at, film buffs and nostalgia nerds.
This self-selecting audience will probably adore Jeremy Shamos' lead turn as a suave, continental grifter. Impeccably dressed by Theresa Squire, Shamos channels Herbert Marshall's sly film performance, a catalog of charming feints and artful dodges shaded with hangdog melancholy.
His leading ladies aren't in the same flawless register. As his partner in crime, Nina Hellman earns laughs with her twitchily ironic line readings, but she and Carolyn Bauemler, as a thoughtlessly rich widow, mug their way too broadly through the plot turns.
The supporting cast has similar strengths and weaknesses. As a perpetually fuming Frenchman, among other roles, Steven Rattazzi is pitch perfect. With his rumpled tux and balding pate, he looks as though he could saunter right onto a Lubitsch set, no questions asked. Ditto Liam Craig, who makes the most of a series of droll waiters and butlers. The rest of the cast adopts the production's "we're only playing" quotation marks to a fault.
This is the show's biggest missed opportunity: It fetishizes some of the trappings of the original film but underappreciates the source material's merits. Indeed, though the script falters at its climax, this is a supple, engaging romantic farce that suggests "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" as written by Noël Coward.
Steven Bernstein's mostly classy hot-jazz underscoring, and a few moments of sprightly scene-change choreography (by Carey Bertini), suggest that "Trouble in Paradise" would make a fine musical. But this half-realized stage-to-film transfer is a rickety time machine at best.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE. Written by David Simpatico, adapted from the screenplay by Samson Raphaelson. Conceived and directed by Elyse Singer. The Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 W. 26th St., Manhattan. Through July8. Tickets $20. Call 212-439-8122. Seen Friday.