The 17th-century English poet Thomas Shadwell once said, "No man is happy but by comparison." While this may be true in life as well as art, it still has to suck when your brand spanking new play can't be mentioned without everyone also calling up another older, famous and frankly similarly themed show. Playwright Scott Burkell even acknowledged this while penning Ho Ho Humbug, a semi-autobiographical story about taking a job as an elf/Santa at Macy's, which bears a strong resemblance in subject matter to David Sedaris's Santaland Diaries. Especially since Sedaris's caustic tale of his own Macy's elfdom played successfully at the city's venerable Alley Theatre for several years.
But take away the red velveteen costumes and the inevitable jokes about snotty kids, even snottier parents and irritatingly festive folks and you have, well...if not altogether a different show, a different take on some shared themes. And, oh yeah, more actors onstage. Unlike Sedaris's one-man, one-act narrative, Burkell's two-and-a-half-hour descent into holiday mascot hell is told with a cast of six actors who (except for Burkell playing a version of himself) take on multiple roles. The other crucial difference is in tone. Whereas Sedaris gave us as much curmudgeonly, biting humbug as he could muster with no lingering warm and fuzzy moments, Ho Ho Humbug will appeal to folks who want their holiday comedic theater tinged with cheer, redemption and loving lessons learned.
Guy (Scott Burkell) is an out-of-work writer just one week shy of qualifying for unemployment insurance. A quick look on Craigslist turns up the expected creepy and undesirable jobs such as porn actor and caretaker to a difficult patient who bites. Director Philip Lehl illustrates these searches by having the potential employers read their postings in short asides that either land flat or are too rushed to milk the joke. But when Guy comes across an ad for time-limited holiday help at Macy's, he feels he's hit the jackpot. He can work for a couple of weeks, qualify for his benefits and be done with the whole thing once the holidays are over. But a clerk job turns into an elf job, which then turns into Guy playing the big man himself when, despite his humbug attitude toward the holidays, he rats out the existing Santa for not having enough holiday spirit. The powers that be at Macy's have a Santa vacancy, and Guy is volunteered into the job.
If you haven't figured it out by now, yes, this is a story of a holiday negative Nellie being pushed by outside forces to participate in established Christmas traditions and softening into the experience and the spirit along the way. In other words, there's little unforeseen in Burkell's disappointingly familiar comedic story arc. At several points during the performance, I realized that I could leave, go to the restroom and come back still knowing perfectly well what had happened in my absence and where in the story line we were. But it wasn't the proverbial nature of the show that most disturbed. Even a critic has to recognize that come holiday season, audiences seem to have no end of desire for the same old customary stories. No fewer than three current Houston productions of A Christmas Carol prove that point. Ho Ho Humbug fails to engross not because it's predictable but because of its surprising reliance on stereotypical, one-dimensional and often offensive supporting characters to provide the bulk of the comedy and move the play along.
Back when Guy is still in elf training, he meets two of the show's major side characters, Doofus, the über-serious, by-the-rules, lisping supervisor, and Bobby, the wrist-flicking, flamboyantly potty-mouthed elf in waiting. Played enthusiastically by Luis Galindo, Doofus tosses his spittle around the stage pontificating on "the guy in the red thoot" and how important it is for "the elvths to show their Chrith-mith thpirit." Take the political correctness of asking your audience to laugh at a speech impediment out of the equation, and the issue is that other than the affectation, there's nothing remotely funny or comically clever about Doofus.
Bobby, however, is a bigger issue. Played with swishy bitchiness by Dayne Lathrop, Burkell's Bobby is nothing more than the oh-so-tired fetishism of the gay man as queen in order to get a laugh. I was far more offended by the use of such a cliché crutch than I was by the actual portrayal. But you can't help thinking that in a play about overcoming holiday prejudices, Burkell could have given us a homosexual man who didn't conform to the stereotypes that fuel some of the most insidious prejudices faced by the gay community.
The rest of the cast do a serviceable job with their equally one-dimensional characters (bitter photo taker, young Macy's manager with Valley-girl cadence, overly spirited holiday elf). Only Susan Draper as the none-too-bright and sight-challenged elf, Sparkle, manages to rise above her character's eccentricities to deliver the show's one truly funny performance. Whether Sparkle sings off key wearing her iPod, making up lyrics along the way, or squints with wonder at why she seems to keep losing the plot in Santa's castle, Draper brings a sweet humanity to her stock character that makes her at least lovable if not entirely believable.
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For Burkell's part, his transition from humbug to ho ho lacks the emotional embodiment to move us. In an almost off-the-cuff performance, Burkell seems to be rattling off rather than performing his story. And in his hands, there is a lot to tell. Overstuffed like a skinny man in a Santa suit, Burkell's script suffers from an abundance of redundant elf training and Santa job incarnation scenes that blur together in ponderous and draggy fashion. Do we really need that many scenes on how a Macy's elf gets trained or even more scenes of zany sitting-on-Santa's-lap outtakes? Burkell settles into his role more strongly in the second act once the Santa suit is donned for a while, but by then we have been lulled into a kind of sugary numbness by the seeming ceaselessness of a play that could have easily been 90 minutes.
Not helping the pace of the show is Lehl's direction, which seems content simply to move his cast around gracelessly in aimless circles on Kevin Holden's stark set. And by stark I mean barren. Washed in white with large dove-gray Chiclet-shaped objects tacked to the backdrop (perhaps to resemble snowflakes?) and with no props save a few white wooden boxes onstage, Holden's set tips from starkness to plain unattractiveness. It's one thing to throw irony up on set by staging a Christmas show without one hint of red, green or tinsel, but quite another to make a set so bereft of any drama, color or visual appeal that we get the feeling we're watching the rehearsal-room performance.
Produced in association with Third Coast Creative, Ho Ho Humbug is Stark Naked Theatre's first ever holiday production. More than simply producing it, Stark Naked also had a hand in helping Burkell develop the script. Perhaps the uninspired result was a case of too many elves in the kitchen or a need to fall back on safe but underwhelming material in the virgin territory of holiday -programming. Whatever the case, Ho Ho Humbug in its present form is a gift I hope someone kept the receipt for.
Ho Ho Humbug Through December 24. Studio 101, 1824 Spring, 832-866-6514, starknakedtheatre.com.