Despite his expressive elasticity as half of Comedy Central's sketch show "Key & Peele," Keegan-Michael Key is not really an over-the-top Christmas guy. You won't find him hamming it up in an ugly sweater at a party, for example.
"Basically, if I don't have to put the lights up or do anything, I'm your man, I'm your man!" he jokes.
For the Second City's "A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, however, Key not only embraces his inner merry-maker but he also lets it rip in an upcoming one-night-only performance.
Co-created by Center Theatre Group, "Twist Your Dickens!" is a high-energy satirical take, in both sketch and improv, on the Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol."
What gives the production — written by Second City alums Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, who have also written for "The Colbert Report" — an extra kick is a rotating lineup of special guests. Each show features a different, high-profile mystery guest who appears as his or herself in a narrator-like capacity for one scene, not unlike a host on "Saturday Night Live."
This year's roster includes actor-director Casey Affleck, Emmy-winning actress Rhea Perlman, Fred Willard, Mindy Sterling and, of course, Key, a member of the Second City Mainstage. (There will be others.)
"The audience is going 'Whaaat? Is that who I think that is?!'" Key says. "So it adds a whole other element. It puts the audience on the edge of their seat a little bit. They never know what's coming next."
The "Christmas Carol" spoof retells the Dickens tale with a distinctly Second City twist. The Ghost of Christmas Past, for example, is an '80s-era pop culture nerd obsessed with Madonna and TV shows like "Who's the Boss?" The Ghost of Christmas Present appears traditional enough: He's got a long beard, green robe and a wreath of leaves in his hair — except he's badly hung over. The silent Ghost of Christmas Future, in his ominous hooded black robe, becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to speak, resorting to a giant foam finger and tapping out Morse code.
Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Ron West, is a little, well, denser than the usual Scrooge as reimagined by Second City. His miserly nature and cruelty are even more pronounced as he interacts with sketch character versions of Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson, as well as anonymous Girl Scouts and nuns.
"Twist Your Dickens!" is also studded with eruptions of improv. At one point, a "heckler" in the audience jumps up and angrily complains about the show's anachronisms.
"It's a lot of fun and kind of surreal," says Key. "I put on a smoking jacket and am rushed onstage in this big chair with this enormous tome in my lap the size of a Volkswagen. All the 'Peanuts' characters come out and talk about God … Schroeder is born again and evangelizing all his friends.
"The majority of the actors are improvisers, so everyone's just going for it!" Key says.
Last year, many of the special guests were well-known L.A. personalities from the food and pop culture worlds.
"They came on as themselves introducing 'the lost original ending of Charlie Brown's Christmas special,'" says CTG associate artistic director Neel Keller. "And they each did it in their own style, they made it their own."
Chef Susan Feniger (Border Grill) threw candied popcorn into the audience as she talked; Richard Simmons got everyone up dancing; L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold crafted his address as if it were a restaurant review; Henry Rollins turned his stint into spoken-word poetry.
Striking a balance between traditional storytelling and spontaneous comedy was tricky, but it makes "Twist Your Dickens!" unique, Keller says. "It became this very fun thing to match these two styles together. You get the whole Dickens story but as filtered through comedians and 'The Simpsons' and 'South Park.'"
The Kirk Douglas lobby will be decorated for the holidays, and the bar will be serving cocktails such as Tiny Timtinis and Scroogedrivers.
Don't worry, Keller says "what happens at Twisted Dickens, stays at Twisted Dickens!"
The Second City's 'A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!'
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 7 and 10 p.m. Thursdays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions) Ends Dec. 29.
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org