The theater, slyly festooned with Christmas kitsch overkill -- tinsel swags, glowing Santas, colored lights -- gives it away: "Sugar Plum Fairy," Sandra Tsing Loh's solo performance, has more than a whiff of acid about it.
This won't surprise anyone familiar with Loh, whose ferocious yet ultimately soulful holiday show opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse.
A writer, musician and performance artist -- with a physics degree from Caltech -- Loh's hip edginess and high velocity delivery are immediately identifiable from her semiautobiographical commentaries on public radio.
Sweetness and light aren't Loh's thing. And besides, she tells us, after unsuccessfully trying to get into the spirit, she "hates" Christmas. So, off with the Christmas tree dress strung with ornaments and hung with jingle bells; beneath it is a sober black gown. The huge Christmas box behind her, wrapped in gold paper and tied with a red bow? Inside is a tacky diorama of cheap plastic decorations and lights.
It's all too depressing, she says, too reminiscent of her "Diane Arbus-y," childhood tract home in the suburbs with her "perfect" older sister, her Chinese scientist father and her German mother, where tennis balls served as casters on the furniture, rug remnants found in Dumpsters carpeted the floor and lawn elves nestled in the never-used fireplace.
At age 12, her escape from the "horror" of it all was a recording of the "Nutcracker," we learn. Loh slips out of her long black dress to reveal leotards and a dance skirt and hurls herself into her uneven coming-of-age "Nutcracker" saga. At its center is an audition for a local ballet production rife with moments of happiness, outrage and pain that make time hold its breath.
It took a while for her to stop just skimming the surface on opening night, however.
Loh's signature style is to speak in tense, jerky cadences with idiosyncratic ... pauses for rapid intakes of breath, and certain words ... that are given unexpected emphasis for effect. In performance, she uses her body similarly, windmilling her arms, waving her hands, curling and uncurling her fingers, physically shaping words and sentences. She kicks and leaps, bends and kneels, wrestles with a chair, moves up and down a dance barre -- and at one point is dragged, clinging to it, by two silent assistants in elf costumes.
On Wednesday, it seemed that Loh wasn't going to come up for air. Initially, clarity fell victim to her frantic pace and one-note emotional pitch. Until she gained focus, the effect was a blurred narrative and sloppy character shifts.
That dynamic gradually changed when Loh's capering audition segment segued into the drive home afterward. Twelve-year-old Loh sits munching cookies, basking in the reflected glory of her sister's audition success.
Loh recalls her mother suddenly cautioning that fruit would be a better snack. Loh has gotten to be "quite big," her mother says, and layers of poignancy emerge from the comic outrage.
The young girl with no sense of limitations -- who would joyously dance in her living room wearing a satin bed sheet for a "gypsy skirt" -- is jolted by the realization that she is perceived as fat. This new knowledge is reinforced when Loh is cast in the Waltz of the Flowers chorus, the lowest rung in the "cruel Darwinian pecking order" of the ballet. Loh's hilarious chalkboard talk explains the "Nutcracker" hierarchy: All the "hippy, big-thighed" girls are Flowers.
But Loh has another Christmas story to tell, and here she comes into her own.
Time has passed. Another huge Christmas box is unwrapped. Inside is the seedy apartment where she lived in her 20s, with one sad string of lights on the wall, a table and a chair.
Set and costume designer David Zinn, sound designer Stephen Le Grand and lighting designer Geoff Korf nail the mood and ambience here and throughout.
Loh is alone on Christmas Eve -- her absent gassy macrobiotic boyfriend calls it a test of character -- drinking $1.99 wine from Trader Joe's. She sorts through old photos. Tony Bennett sings carols on her tinny AM radio. It's a miserable yet peculiarly happy moment of self-discovery propelling Loh into the present.
Now she speaks as the mother of two young daughters who may one day have their own "Waltz of the Flowers" moment but who will also be given the time to "grab hold of their gypsy skirts and dance wildly in the forests of their imagination."
Bathed in a shaft of white light on the darkened stage, Loh turns her face up to softly falling snow, leaving her audience with a redemptive, and yes, seasonal message of hope and peace.
'Sugar Plum Fairy'
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.
Ends: Dec. 21
Contact: (310) 208-5454
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes