Christmas obviously isn't for everyone, but it's pretty hard to avoid even if your plan for the 25th involves Chinese food and a movie. Stores break out the decorations right after Halloween, and as for the theater, it's wall to wall productions of "A Christmas Carol" as soon as the Thanksgiving leftovers are finished.
It's enough to put even a Noel-loving drama critic in a "Bah, humbug!" mood.
Fortunately, two notable alternatives to the standard holiday fare have arrived to spice up the season: The Second City's "A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and Donald Margulies' "Coney Island Christmas" at the Geffen Playhouse.
Neither threatens to topple Dickens' cash reindeer, but one brought me the joy of laughter and the other gave me the gift of wonder. So even though I have one or two Scrooge-like criticisms, particularly of the Margulies play, there's reason to be grateful.
The strength of the Second City offering, a send-up of "A Christmas Carol" garlanded with zany holiday sketches, lies in its crack ensemble. The cast is composed of Second City alumni whose names may not be all that familiar but whose talent is undeniable.
Ron West's Ebenezer Scrooge is a testimony to the hilarity of villainy that's too old and cranky to give a damn. This guy gets his jollies from torturing underlings and tormenting the poor and defenseless. When we first encounter Scrooge, he's counting his ill-gotten gains from the Salvation Army kettle he left outside for dupes to fill up. "It was like taking candy from a baby who is stupid," he boasts.
The script by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort (both have experience writing for "The Colbert Report") supplies plenty of bust-a-gut lines. When Brian Stepanek's Bob Cratchit objects to having to work on Christmas, Scrooge replies, "I don't care if it's Jesus' birthday, you're going to be here bright and early tomorrow morning!"
Yet it's West's tart truculence that truly tickles the audience, just as it's the physical comedy of Frank Caeti, Larry Joe Campbell and Dan Castellaneta as the ghosts who try to redeem a seemingly unredeemable miser that creates an atmosphere of riotous havoc. (Campbell's belly, liberally exposed, is a laugh magnet all by itself.) Amanda Blake Davis as Mrs. Cratchit and Jean Villepique as Tiny Tim round out the versatile cast whose role-hopping ease and comic acuity reaffirm Second City's storied history.
Intermittently, a heckler starts shouting complaints about the ludicrous anachronisms of this Dickens retelling. These moments are clearly scripted but feel completely improvisational. And when the actors are called upon to improvise a scene of a family opening gifts on Christmas morning in various time periods suggested by the audience, the performers' mental alertness would astound even the geniuses over at Caltech.
The only quibble with the production, nimbly directed by Marc Warzecha, is its length. A tighter set of routines is always merrier. Also, why stop the momentum with an intermission when it would make more sense to turn the lobby into a post-show watering hole for those wanting to linger in the mirthful afterglow with one of the themed cocktails that are for sale? But this twist on Dickens is good medicine for a harried season that can sometimes leave you too stressed out to even smile.
"Coney Island Christmas" at the Geffen seems to be vying for the Jewish "Christmas Carol" slot. And Margulies, whose work ("Sight Unseen," "The Model Apartment") often grapples with Jewish identity, is just the man for the job, though this drama, an elaboration of a short story by Grace Paley, is still a draft or two away from becoming a holiday staple.
The frame of the piece has Shirley Abramowitz (Angela Paton) recollecting to her great-granddaughter (Grace Kaufman) a tale from her Depression-era Brooklyn childhood. Not having much luck getting into the holiday spirit in sunny California, they travel back in time to a bustling, noisy immigrant world that in Shirley's part of town was fragrant with potato latkes, gefilte fish and sour pickles.
Young Shirley (an endearing Isabella Acres) is a bright 12-year-old with a notably loud voice that gets her in trouble at home but opens doors at school — the stage door, most exciting of all. After making a successful debut gobbling as a turkey in the school's Thanksgiving pageant, she is cast as Jesus in the Christmas pageant.
Shirley's father (Arye Gross), a shopkeeper happy to be in a country free of pogroms, takes the news in stride, but Shirley's mother (Annabelle Gurwitch) is up in arms at the idea of her Jewish daughter starring in a Christian extravaganza. "We let our Shirley play Jesus, then what?" she asks. "She becomes a nun?"
Caught in this parental crossfire, Shirley is desperately afraid she won't be able to fulfill the promise she made to her teachers, Mr. Hilton (John Sloan) and Miss Glacé (Lily Holleman), both of whom are counting on her big voice and beatific smile to save the day.
The question of whether she'll be allowed to go on with the show is belabored by Margulies. Paley's story, "The Loudest Voice," conjures entire worlds with Yiddish-inflected turns of phrase, and both the playwright and director, Bart DeLorenzo, should have followed this less-is-more approach. There's also too much speechifying about America, Christmas and the meaning of a play that recognizes the dangers of assimilation but generously sees the glass as half full.
Nearly wiping away these problems, however, is the incredible enchantment wrought from the two pageants DeLorenzo brings to adorable adolescent life. The design team, which includes Takeshi Kata (sets), Ann Closs-Farley (costumes), Lap Chi Chu (lighting) and John Ballinger (composer/sound), dreamily re-creates the public school setting, but it's the actors who will have you happily reliving your days in assembly.
If there's one thing I wish I could have caught on camera it's the look on the face of Shirley's best friend, Evie Slotnick (a perfect Kira Sternbach) as she sings, acts and dances her chagrined heart out in the school plays. Evie's expression — part boredom, part humiliation, part trouper zeal — would make an ideal image for the holiday cards I sadly once again won't have time to send.
The Second City's 'A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!'
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tue. through Fri., 6 and 9:30 p.m. Sat., 3 and 6:30 p.m. Sun. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Dec. 30.
Price: $20-$65 (Subject to change.)
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
'Coney Island Christmas'
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Dec. 30.
Price: $47-$72. (Subject to change.)
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or http://www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
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