Holiday shopper's guide to hell

I hope that Quincy Long's bracing, cheeky "children's play" A Por Quinley Christmas is revived often over the next few generations, the way Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been for us. That will allow future, cyberspace theater critics to one day rail against it as toothless and overfamiliar the way today's critics lambaste the Dickens' tale for holiday audiences. But as things stand right now, Quinley's tart musical about a little boy literally rescued from the clutches of commercialism affirms one important thing: You're not the dimmest candle in the menorah (to mix religious metaphors) if you choose to dedicate your life to something besides the monomaniacal pursuit of money.

The funny, fleet (it clocks in at just about an hour) A Por Quinley Christmas, given its world premiere by the Undermain Theatre, drives its message about family, friendship, and the stultifying confusion of mass-marketed emotions with authentic feelings using that canniest of postmodern techniques--it begins by roundly making fun of the sentiment it ends up championing. The juggernaut of history will determine whether A Por Quinley Christmas is timeless--for any playwright to consider such a thing while writing is almost guaranteed to stifle his muse. Right now, it feels like bloody anarchy to strum the play's anti-commercialism chord--particularly in a time that bitterly resists any suggestion that there's a bottom line beneath the almighty dollar.

An especially heady punch that combines elements of Roald Dahl, Ralph Nader, and Matt Groening, A Por Quinley Christmas recounts the boyhood travails of our eponymous hero (Mark Farr), the earnest child of a self-important anti-Christmas activist (Lynn Mathis) who stages ACT-UP style demonstrations at shopping malls and has authored such books as The Candy Cane Cult and The Elves Make More Than You Do. Por Quinley, the confused son who was long ago abandoned by his radical dad, is taken to his first mall by a talking, singing Christmas tree (Deborah Kirby). There he's imprisoned by the evil Doktor Shopperlifter (Kent Rice-Williams, working a florid Austrian accent with glee) and his obsequious assistant Mr. Roach (Rhonda Bhoutte), who kidnap unsuspecting shoppers, dip them in hot wax, and use them as store-display mannequins. The same mall where Por Quinley is captured also happens to be the place where Quinley the Elder, doing community service for his last bit of uncivil disobedience, has been compelled to play Santa Claus. Help comes in the form of a hip hip-loving boy shoplifter named Henry the Horrible (Anthony L. Ramirez) and the snowgirl-turned-aspiring-actress Lenore (Laurel Hoitsma), who invade Doktor Shopperlifter's "undermall" lair to rescue Por Quinley and Quinley the Elder.

At the opening-night performance, the cast was firing at full pistons without the condescension that "serious theater artists" might bring to such a frolic, but with the serious attempt to measure each performance for maximum laughs. Even in a comedy, a grown man playing a kid--if he turns the enterprise into a cacophony of earnest mannerisms--threatens to remind us of all the ways adults misread the innocence of childhood. Mark Farr registers Por Quinley's journey from lonely, pretentious tadpole to ravenous consumer to dedicated son and proud friend without losing that restless need for "everything and nothing."

Likewise, Anthony L. Ramirez plays the thieving Horrible Henry with an enthusiastic love of mischief, not some tedious agenda to uncover a brat's core innocence. He also does a hilarious bit as the mirror-sunglassed, toothpick-in-the-mouth redneck bailiff who oversees Quinley the Elder's probation. Which reminds me--it's nice to see Lynn Mathis, a commanding stage presence, lighten up as Por Quinley's self-righteous father. With his rich, arch voice and imperious face, Mathis can sometimes scowl his way through serious roles. His self-effacement here is three parts sweet nog to his patented shot of bourbon anger. Presiding over the whole enterprise with acerbic soulfulness is Deborah Kirby as the pizza-loving Christmas Tree; her marvelous, wizened voice makes the best case for this song-filled comedy as a musical.

A Por Quinley Christmas spoons out its medicine and treacle in skillful order. The play's core is as gooey and steadfastly moon-eyed as a TV ad for flavored coffee at Christmas. The outer layers of salty satire about lefty do-goodism run amok, and the snare of capitalist consumption in overdrive all point deliciously to the same media glut. The script simply knows that, nowadays, kids have practically as much access to the marketplace of information as adults do. The snazzy dialogue talks up to young and old by revealing that to be human is, almost by definition, to think you know more than you actually do. Por Quinley's premature cynicism about marketing, and his journey backward to the primitive fundamentals of friendship and family, is the kind of regression we could all use in this age of the advertorial.

A Por Quinley Christmas runs through December 20. Call 747-5515.

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Jimmy Fowler