By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ghosts of Christmas plays past are haunting Dallas theaters this season. So many playhouses are doing the same shows they did at the same time last year that reviewing them again feels like "OK, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties 'cause it's cooooold out there."
Few actors in movies, TV or particularly regional theater escape A Christmas Carol, or some version of it, entirely. You start your career as Tiny Tim, mature into Bob Cratchit and wear the whiskers of Ebenezer Scrooge before you're finished, because every theater large and small in the Western Hemisphere eventually stages the thing. Nobody's written a more crowd-pleasing Yuletide fable since Charles Dickens put pen to parchment in 1843, so it keeps being reworked, updated, spoofed and wholly or partially plagiarized year after bloody year.
You certainly can't swing a crutch in this town between Thanksgiving and New Year's without hitting a member of the Cratchit family. And right about now, there are some stage-hogging Tiny Tims who need a sound thrashing, believe you me.
Take Erik Archilla, a grown-up actor pretending to be a rather stupid child in Risk Theater Initiative's not-so-jolly production of Christopher Durang's Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. Pulling more faces than a cosmetic surgeon, Archilla mugs shamelessly and endlessly as Tiny Tim. He played the part last year, along with other members of the Risk cast, in a production of this play at Richardson Theatre Center. Same play, same actors, but darned if Risk's Mrs. Bob isn't a right old mess. Rife with coarse acting, missed cues and bungled comedy bits, it's so sloppy and unfunny it starts to feel kind of sad.
Director Tom Parr IV staged this show in Richardson and at Risk. With a year between, he might have devised ways to tighten and brighten it, but he hasn't shown a sure hand with comedy before, and with this one his idea of hilarity is having actors fall down a lot. He also has a peculiar habit of placing bodies in tight clumps on the far sides of the stage, leaving the center a gaping chasm where nothing's going on. He makes Mrs. Cratchit, played with a pissed-off snarl by Allison Pistorius, stand sideways to the audience, forcing her to strain her neck to speak to actors standing behind her. Often characters stand half in the dark, unaware of hot spots in the lighting.
Not all of the failure of Mrs. Bob falls on director and actors. They're working with a script that's a ding-dong dud. Long, long ago, Christopher Durang brought forth funny stuff like his scathing satire of Catholic education titled Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, which was an award-winning Off-Broadway hit in 1980. But after that, he developed humor deficit disorder. Later works, including Baby and the Bathwater and The Marriage of Bette & Boo, fizzled. Mrs. Bob Cratchit came about in 2002, though its stale references to Mia Farrow, Leona Helmsley and Milli Vanilli hint that the script could have been sprouting mold at the back of Durang's desk drawer since 1987.
Like other writers who've tried to one-up or send up Dickens, Durang has gone for cheap shots at Christmas Carol's sentimentality. Among the creaky modernisms, including the appearance of Enron execs in Scrooge's office, he also throws a few dull darts at The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, It's a Wonderful Life, Gift of the Magi, The Little Match Girl and A Charlie Brown Christmas. If Mrs. Cratchit is going to see what her life could have been like had she never been born (that's the Capra nod), we really shouldn't have to wait till well into the second act to hear about it. By then, we've lost interest in the whole shebang.
The "binge" Durang alludes to in his title isn't even all that wild. Bob Cratchit (Chad Gowen Spear) keeps bringing home starving foundlings he can't afford to feed. His wife tosses each tot into the cellar and declares she wants to skip Christmas, get drunk and throw herself off London Bridge. She hies herself to a nearby pub and tosses back a few with the neighborhood wenches. End of binge.
This bitter, PG-rated take on Dickens' work is an overlong collection of pointless nasties. Scrooge pepper-sprays a Cratchit kid. The Ghost of Christmas Past (played under a poofy black wig by slow-on-the-uptake Gloria Vivica Benavides) Tasers Scrooge in the neck. Durang has even resorted to an out-of-nowhere and completely archaic dig at the women's movement, with Mrs. Cratchit wishing "this was 1977 and I could be admired for my unpleasantness."
All of this happens, strangely enough, on designer Dave Tenney's beautiful set, a cleverly and elegantly rendered three-paneled watercolor sketch of 19th-century London streets. If only everything going on in front of the scenery didn't induce a grand mal cringe.
A traditional, lavishly staged A Christmas Carol is playing to sold-out houses at Dallas Theater Center, where for the third year in a row they're performing the lovely adaptation by Richard Hellesen, directed by Joel Ferrell. That one has the perfect Ebenezer in actor Robert Langdon Lloyd, who makes the character as fearsome and funny as Dickens intended. Really, if you're going to get Scrooged, why settle for cheap imitations?
Other repeaters on the end-of-year calendar include Alan Ayckbourn's mildly sexy farce Season's Greetings, onstage at both Stage West in Fort Worth and here at Theatre Too. WaterTower Theatre in Addison is reprising Rockin' Christmas Party (its third revival of the musical revue) and David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries (seven years running). And at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, if it's Christmas season, it's also Hanukkah time, which means they're doing Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo again.
It's the third go-round for this play at CTD, and there's only one new cast member this year, Cameron McElyea in the role of Joe Farkas, a handsome Jewish man from Brooklyn acclimating to life among less observant Jews in 1939 Atlanta. He's one of the "other kind" (those whose relatives came from Eastern Europe), regarded in the South as less desirable marriage material than Jews with forebears from Germany. Joe falls for Wellesley student Sunny Freitag (Jennifer Pasion), daughter of a well-off Atlanta family so un-kosher they put up a Christmas tree and aren't sure when Passover is. The match doesn't sit well with crabby Aunt Boo (Sue Loncar) or her girl Lala (Ginger Goldman). Boo is so desperate for the flighty Lala to land a rich Jewish boy, she forces her into the arms of the obnoxious Peachy Weil (Wesley Bourland). At Ballyhoo, an annual country club cotillion restricted to the Jewish kids of the "right kind," Joe is forced to face Atlanta's intra-ethnic prejudice.
Uhry's first play, Driving Miss Daisy, is a delicate little comic masterpiece addressing similar themes. Ballyhoo, written as a commission for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, feels a little forced, but it's a pleasant enough living room drama, like Tennessee Williams lite.
At CTD, director Cheryl Denson hasn't reined in all of the broad acting—Loncar's a mite too squawky as Boo, and Cindee Mayfield, as her sister-in-law Reba, is too dippy by half—but the play's shallow storytelling is camouflaged by the subtler performances of McElyea and Pasion, whose scenes together are quiet little studies in old-fashioned flirtation. Goldman and Bourland get laughs goading each other as the goofy Lala and Peachy, who make the "right kind" look like supercilious dimwits next to socially conscious Joe and Sunny.
The play ends too abruptly—Sunny and Joe get engaged and suddenly the Freitag household starts praying in Hebrew—but it says what it needs to and then takes its bows.