A man in a vest and white shirt sits cross-legged on the floor at left. To the right is a woman also sitting cross-legged, wearing a bathrobe. A table with a champagne bottle is visible behind them.
Rory Schrobilgen (left) and Brandy Miller in Blank Theatre Company's Promises, Promises. Credit: Eli Van Sickel/VanCap Images

Don’t ask me how many times I’ve seen Billy Wilder’s Academy Award-winning 1960 film The Apartment. I honestly couldn’t tell you. I can tell you it’s my favorite movie, and it should certainly be on anyone’s list of great holiday films, as well. (If for no other reason, you should watch it for the glorious performances of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.)

The premise certainly doesn’t sound very Christmasy. C.C. Baxter is an office drone at a huge insurance company in Manhattan. He’s trying to take a shortcut up the corporate ladder by loaning out his apartment to executives for their extramarital flings. One of the women in the office, Fran Kubelik, upon whom he’s developed an unrequited crush, realizes on Christmas Eve Mr. Big (aka Mr. Sheldrake in personnel) is never going to leave his wife for her. (Shades of Carrie Fisher’s character in When Harry Met Sally.) Distraught, she downs a bottle of sleeping pills. Baxter comes home with a woman he picked up in a bar and . . . well, as I said, it doesn’t sound bursting with holiday cheer.

But for a lot of people, Christmas is about being alone and desperate, surrounded by strangers and trying to drum up some sense of hope, even as your dreams for romance and success seem further and further away. In that way, The Apartment resonates far more than the standard-issue Hallmark holiday film. 

Promises, Promises
Through 12/30: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 12/18 7:30 PM; Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-7336, blanktheatrecompany.org or greenhousetheater.org, $41 general admission (including fees), $26 students/industry (including fees)

Despite my love for the film, somehow I’ve never seen Promises, Promises, the 1968 musical created from Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay by book writer Neil Simon, with music by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. With that pedigree, you’d think it would come around more often, but it’s only been revived on Broadway once since its premiere, and the last Chicago production I know about was in 2002 with Porchlight Music Theatre.

Part of it is the story feels decidedly dated. But that never seems to keep anyone from producing How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which shares some narrative DNA and the time period with Promises. And if the wild success of Mad Men taught us nothing else, it’s that people still have a staring-at-car-crashes fascination with the outdated mores of the presexual revolution of the 1960s. (Fun fact: Miss Olson, the spurned secretary of Mr. Sheldrake, has the first name Peggy in the musical. Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, borrowed that name for Elisabeth Moss’s character.)

Blank Theatre Company’s small but spirited revival of Promises, Promises lands just in time for cynics and romantics alike to enjoy this holiday season. Directed by Danny Kapinos and featuring a tight live band (music direction by Aaron Kaplan), it wears its dated references comfortably without feeling too much like a dusty museum piece. (And let’s face it, it’s not as if our enlightened age of sexual harassment trainings has eliminated predatory bosses.) 

Rory Schrobilgen as “Chuck” Baxter (Lemmon’s CC went by “Bud”) moves believably from callow climber to a man with at least the beginnings of a backbone. His direct addresses to the audience and early imaginings of conversations between himself and Brandy Miller’s Fran have a hint of Walter Mitty. (Fran here works in the executive dining room, not as an elevator operator as MacLaine’s film character did—Simon’s book works in a sly in-joke about the switch.) Miller’s Fran isn’t innocent, exactly. But nor is she a hardened cynic. Neither, for that matter, is Stephanie Stockstill’s Miss Olson, who functions like a big sister trying to warn the other women about the dine-and-dash approach to office romances embodied by Craig Zeller’s Sheldrake.

And then there’s Kingsley Day as Dr. Dreyfuss, Baxter’s neighbor, who helps save Fran’s life and also gives the young man he imagines to be a raging Lothario (based on the carnal noise he hears through the thin apartment walls every night) advice for saving his soul. Day’s deadpan delivery hits the center of the target every time. 

Remarkably, given the very small Greenhouse stage, the dance numbers by choreographer Lauryn Solana Schmelzer also deliver, including the absolutely bonkers “Turkey Lurkey Time” that closes the first act. (I suspect that more than one chiropractor has bought themselves a lovely summer home after treating the trio of women required to do the neck-snapping routines originally created by the late Michael Bennett.) The quartet of executive manbabies vying for Baxter’s trysting pad also make “Where Can You Take a Girl?” a comic showstopper. And the best-known numbers from this score—the title song and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”—receive lovely simple renditions from Schrobilgen and Miller. 

In the real world, would Chuck and Fran stand a chance? Maybe not—he’s idealizing someone he really doesn’t know, and if she’s still looking for a romantic savior, maybe she’s not ready for a fully rounded relationship, either. But what are the holidays for if not a little bit of belief in impossible possibilities?