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Dyssing Christmas

Why theater critics get grouchy in December, and a review of the audience at 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Christmas

By the time you read this, I will have just about had my fill of theatrical Christmas cheer. Even the saintliest soul -- among which holy company I scarcely include myself -- can endure only so many Christmas Carols without entertaining blasphemy. Or at least without recalling like a sacred mantra Oscar Wilde's bon mot regarding the death of Tiny Tim: "impossible to contemplate without laughing."

But my occupational hazards are not your problem. There are still a few evenings left in which to catch the Alley's visually stunning production of Dickens' ageless roasted chestnut, in Michael Wilson's sturdy and imaginative adaptation. It makes excellent use of the ghostly and atmospheric possibilities of the story, and it remains distinguished by the work of the technical team: Jay Michael Jagim (scenic design), Ainslie Bruneau (costumes), Howell Binkley (lighting) and Joe Pino (sound). Once again James Black settles grumpily and comfortably into the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, and even his scraggly Garth Algar wig seems to fit him a bit better this year. Jeffrey Bean, doubling as Mrs. Dilber and Marley's Ghost, misses not a whoop nor a howl -- Marley seems perhaps a bit more leprous this season, thanks to another yearÕs wandering. John Feltch's Bob Cratchit is as nobly pitiful as ever. Among the returning company are Alex Allen Morris, Bettye Fitzpatrick, Charles Sanders, Charles Krohn and Shelley Williams. Paul Hope (as nephew Fred) and Lona McManus (as Mrs. Fezziwig etc.) are welcome fresh faces.

In addition to the Alley's traditional Dickens, there have also been a handful of other Christmas variations, some still running. The Ensemble's popular musical revision of the tale, Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, a soulfully comic Harlem update, runs through the New Year. Stages' tuneful homage to that most entertaining conflagration, World War II, Swingin' on a Star, is also a lively and nostalgic -- if your nostalgia is farsighted enough -- holiday date. Radio Music Theatre has its perennial revue farce, A Fertle Holiday, which barely notices the turn of the year, running right on into the middle of January. And of course the infant Gargantua of this holiday season, Beauty and the Beast, was held over one last time (through January 9) before its move to New York -- though you may need a magic spell to lay your hands on a ticket.

Of all these holiday crowd-pleasers -- and I have listed here only those I know will still be open when this issue hits the street -- the oddest duck of all is undoubtedly Rob Nash's 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Christmas, the cheerfully Grinchean sequel to his less seasonal 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional You. It's playing at Curtains through the season, and the promise is that Nash will return his secular version, said to be the theater's single most popular show, after the holiday.

Once again, Nash has written and plays all the characters of the comically ill-adjusted Smith family, which this time includes Grandma Mildred; her grown children Margot (with short-lived husband Bill), Fred and Mirriam; and Margot and Bill's boorish offspring, Matt and Ashley. "Plays" is overstating the case. Nash is not much of an actor, though a bit of a mimic, so we can tell when Mildred's talking (she moves slowly), or Mirriam (having taken the name "Windsong," she babbles New Age cliches), or when the kids are on (Matt is a foul-mouthed rocker, his sister a pouting mall rat). The others are less immediately identifiable, although Nash uses a shirt-prop to make small distinctions in style. The vocal variations sound suspiciously like outtakes from Saturday Night Live, in the vein of Stuart Smalley and friends, and as theater the show is very thin eggnog. But Nash is a standup comedian and comedy writer by trade, and judging only from his large and enthusiastic audience on a recent Friday night, this light-handed, pop-cliched social parody has its hearty adherents.

There are very few surprises in Nash's mixed bag, save a handful of character gags and a dollop of marginally hip social commentary. Mildred has shed her alcoholic husband ("Root out your Grinch!") of many years, and is ready to move from Texarkana to Houston, when a string of family tragedies intervenes. Hubby doesn't do too well on his own, and then gay son Fred calls from San Francisco, destitute and sick with AIDS. Son Bill and grandson Matt meet misfortune on the way home from a wild man weekend, and...

But I'd hate, as they say, to spoil the fun. "Tragedies" is in fact not the word for Nash's vision of the new representative American family; tragedies occur to people larger than life, and this now quite common self-portrait of ordinary American reality is very much a miniature. The picture is often amusing, but there's a smug, self-congratulatory cynicism to this sort of humor that reduces everything it touches -- and not to some lower depths, a la Lenny Bruce, but to a bland mediocrity of pointlessness. And its double standard for satirical targets is lamely predictable. Grandma escapes the lash because she's an old lady, Fred because he's a gay PWA; everybody else is fair game. The whiff of sanctimony is palpable.

Where did I begin? Ah, yes, with Christmas rituals of repetition. Sanctimoniousness, in its multifarious permutations, is definitely in the seasonal air. Who am I to gainsay it?

God bless us, every one.

 
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