By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Don't be scared by the title. Christmas at Ground Zero, a new collection of miniplays onstage at the Bath House Cultural Center through December 22, isn't some hurried-up, played-to-order commentary on the national nightmare that started in September. Only one of the works in this sometimes touching, sometimes trivial production makes even an oblique reference to America's war on terrorism. The Ground Zero here is the name of the theater company, a feisty group dedicated to producing new scripts, short and long, by local playwrights.
They may not be about that other Ground Zero, but they're also not Christmas lite, this string of 10- and 15-minute holiday-themed playlets. They tell war stories, but they're the kind that erupt near home and hearth this jolly time of year.
In short bursts, Christmas at Ground Zero offers familiar glimpses of domestic yuletide hell. There's the couple in Susan McMath Platt's Family Presents who resort to cartoony hand-to-hand combat over which set of parents they'll tear turkey with. In The Best Christmas Ever by Guillermo De Leon, neighbors plant little land mines of hate in the church Christmas pageant and use some biological warfare to spike the refreshments.
In James Venhaus' scene titled The First Christmas, a just-busted couple simultaneously carry on confessional monologues about what went wrong as they each attack their half of a Christmas tree, every ornament a cherished spoil of marital war. In Unwrapped by Max Langert, another pair of lovers, forced to work in the trenches of a department store gift-wrap center, toss verbal grenades at each other amid the paper and ribbons.
Funny, these plays say again and again, how the true meaning of Christmas gets fragged by old hurts. Sad how little skirmishes so often escalate into full-scale Armageddon over such foolishness as who got what from Santy Claus and how much it really cost.
Two of the titles in this festival of short-attention-span theater stand out: after lunch by prolific Dallas playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood and Wonderful Life by Erik B. Knapp. Cheatwood's, the shortest of the 10, has two adult sisters sharing hot coffee and heated words about politics, terrorism and patriotism. Kim (Lynne Rutherford) supports the war effort. Laura (Sue Birch) is a dedicated peacenik. "Didn't we teach our children not to hit back?" she says. Laura's teen-age daughter Bets (Melanie Puckett) sits between the two like a tennis fan, head swiveling back and forth as the women lob invective at each other.
Efficient with language and rich with subtext, after lunch saves its delicious Serling-esque twist for the very end. That's when we discover what war Kim and Laura are talking about--not the one you expect--and why their outfits are adorned with small Old Glory patches and large I.D. numbers. That revelation makes for a satisfying head-nodder just as the lights fade on this too-brief gem.
Longer and talkier is Knapp's thoughtful and well-acted Wonderful Life, which finds elderly Roy (Chapman Locke) planted in a movie house, watching endless screenings of the beloved Frank Capra classic with a bomb strapped to his chest. Police negotiator Connor (Jeff Fenter) has convinced Roy to release his hostages. Now he must cajole the distraught old guy into settling for peace on earth instead of pieces of himself all over it.
With dialogue that occasionally teeters perilously close to those overwrought Sipowicz scenes on NYPD Blue, Wonderful Life is elevated by Locke's subtle, dignified performance as Roy. He nicely underplays the emotions of a man who's at the end of his rope and reaching back into the past for good memories in the very theater where he wooed his late wife. The old movie palace is marked for demolition and so, it seems, is Roy, unless the cop can talk him into giving up his "bomb."
Director Cynthia Hestand allows some quiet moments between the two actors in Wonderful Life, restraint not shown in some of the other extravagantly overacted plays in the collection. In a setting as intimate as the Bath House Gallery Space--about 50 seats, none more than a few yards from the stage--big outbursts of emotion engulf the audience like a tsunami. Less is more in this place, and most of the actors could ratchet back several notches from the BIG ACTING they're doing and not lose a lick. The amped-up volume and too-busy blocking might be a ham-handed directorial strategy to infuse some of the slighter plays with more energy. But in most of these vignettes, mere conversation level would be fine, whispers even.
And it's OK to let actors just sit and speak to each other without having them crisscross the stage with stiffly choreographed moves every few seconds. Some stillness now and then allows an audience to believe, if only for a moment or two, that they are overhearing something real, not having lines shouted and waved at them like football cheers.
In that deafening yee-haw mode is the moronically acted and oxymoronically titled The Best Christmas Ever, a goofy screaming match written by Guillermo De Leon. This is one of the scripts that isn't so much a short play as an overly long, very loud skit, one that borrows heavily from Tuna Christmas and screechy episodes of Mama's Family.
It pits two small-town, big-haired mamas named December and Summer (Lysandra Dial-Meek and Melanie Puckett) against each other for the role of Mary in the nativity play. What starts out with a couple of semi-promising laugh lines--"Red's the color of Satan and whores...I learned that in New York," snaps Summer--quickly disintegrates into a slapsticky mess that has a dirty-minded priest (Chapman Locke) tripping out on PCP-laced cookies and December's redneck husband, Earl (Jeff Fenter), admitting to gay fantasies. If he's trying for Texana Christopher Durang, playwright De Leon instead delivers clangy, twangy schlock.
Along those same fault lines, Minor Revelation by Reg Platt is more of a major annoyance. Platt has written a parable about St. John (Chapman Locke again, doing his best to rise above the material) penning a gospel that includes some dire warnings from the Big Guy about overcommercializing the birth of Our Lord. John's messages are communicated through a mute angel (Denise Jackson, forced to act out her lines like a hyperactive charades contestant). Enter the now-aged Mary (Carolyn Wickwire) to retell the story of the nativity and bemoan the omissions from the already-written versions of Jesus' life. "Nobody mentioned his bar mitzvah," she says wistfully.
Nothing goes right with Minor Revelation, not when Platt types groaners like, "You can't really live on bread alone--oh, that's good. I've gotta write that down." Oh, if only Platt hadn't. And later, asked if Jesus will be returning for the Second Coming, Mary says, "That's my assumption."
The last play of the night is Iggy and Louis by Jim Tyler Anderson, a thoroughly predictable scenario about homeless people begging holiday shoppers for handouts. Iggy (Wickwire), decked out in layers of theatrically faux rags, rants about alien rays attacking her brain through her foil helmet (oh, please). Her pal, mentally challenged Louis (Locke again, working with the rotten script as best he can), sings carols in that sickeningly childlike manner that's supposed to be poignant but actually induces cringing. Once again, a playwright confuses his assignment (even for a 10-minute play) with the pat, formulaic shtick churned out by exhausted Saturday Night Live sketch writers.
Maybe it's the TV-scene lengths of most of these plays that keep them from being more substantial or memorable. Only Cheatwood and Knapp succeed at framing their messages in a live-theater format. The rest end up with a mishmash of limp punch lines and zero-to-hysterical emotional uproars performed by actors who appear to be auditioning for sitcoms and soap operas and not simply acting for the audience an arm's length away.