It's Christmas Eve in 1969, but yuletide cheer seems to have deserted Michael Murphy for good as he sits drinking alone in a borrowed Volkswagen parked in his parents' driveway.
Depicting how things came to this sorry, alienated pass is the thoughtful focus of "Murphy's Xmas" at Moving Arts in Silver Lake. Trey Nichols' new adaptation of "The Murphy Stories" by Mark Costello condenses the flawed protagonist's failed marriage, problematic love affair and tortured relationship with his father into a flashback-heavy reflection on the sad consequences of self-absorption, a cautionary tale for would-be rebels everywhere.
As Murphy, David Shofner evokes a measure of sympathy for the character's confused missteps in life (he's not so much a total cad as he is self-defeating), and director Lee Wochner ensures both selfishness and complexity are evenly spread around the stage. Murphy's manipulative ex-wife (Trudy Perry) still cares for him despite their mutual betrayals, his girlfriend (Carolyn Crotty) offers safe harbor even though he suspects she is cheating on him, and his terminally ill father (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) desperately wants his son to accept him as an imperfect human instead of the remote, arch-conservative tyrant he's been in the past.
Honoring his source, Nichols makes extensive use of a central narrator, Kathleen Clark, whose assured delivery brings rich vitality to Costello's eloquent prose--characters don't just have regrets, they "sniff the acid fractures of remorse." Yet this same narrative device at times undermines the dramatic immediacy, especially when instead of articulating an emotional state, a character simply tacks on a concluding phrase to Clark's lead-in description. Transposing well-written fiction to the stage often requires a delicate balancing act between two very different aesthetics, and here a little less literary fidelity could make an affecting story even more compelling.
* "Murphy's Xmas," Moving Arts, 1822 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Jan. 29. $15-$22. (213) 665-8961. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.