Season's Greetings

"Oh my, it's fruitcake weather!" If you have 45 minutes to spare before Christmas, you absolutely must meet (or reacquaint yourself with) who says this, and to whom, and why. The singular pronouncement is from Truman Capote's charming semi-autobiographical short story A Christmas Memory, adapted by Beth Sanford in 1982 for the Alley and, since 1990, presented more austerely at Christ Church Cathedral. The setting is modest: two rocking chairs taking up a tiny platform decorated with a country throw rug and a few down-home trappings. But under Sanford's affectionate direction, and through the humane and endearing performances of Bettye Fitzpatrick and Charles Sanders, Capote's wistful period piece remains inestimable. It flies as high, and is as delicate, as a kite.

In A Christmas Memory, a kite is what a young, sensitive boy and his eccentric, elderly aunt make for each other every Christmas, much to their mutual delight, if not surprise. He's keenly observant; she's shy with everyone except strangers. He's advanced for his age; she's still a child. Soul mates, they spend their Christmas making fruitcakes for "friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we've met maybe once, perhaps not at all." As for one particular leftover ingredient, "We're both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey." When they sober up, they journey to the woods, where "frozen rime lusters the grass," where a creek includes "a disturbed armada of speckled trout" and frogs "the size of plates" that "practice belly flops" and where "a brave handsome brute" of a Christmas tree awaits.

With nary a word change, Sanford and Fitzpatrick and Sanders find the lilting Southern rhythms of Capote's finely tuned voice and shimmering insight. These three are virtuosos. Sanford doesn't so much block as caress; perceptively, she suggests instead of underscores. And her quaint sound effects situate more than just a sense of place. In floral calico and high-top sneakers, Fitzpatrick is an aged innocent, all guilelessness and impressions. In the type of bow tie and sweater vest favored, paradoxically enough, by young and old alike, Sanders narrates to us like a mindful adult and interacts with Fitzpatrick like a tender boy.

A Christmas Memory is the perfect theatrical stocking stuffer: small and dainty and precious.

"Our home has already been turned into a hotel," a supportive husband offers. "You might as well turn it into a chapel." The Christian thing to do would be to call writer/director Jeannette Clift George's Jangle Bells, the A.D. Players' holiday show, blunt. But that'd be a sin. At the risk of heresy, I mustn't lie: Jangle Bells is awful.

In George's Christmas vision, eight people with apparently little in common are forced to spend the holiday together in a high-rise apartment. The reasons they have to do this strain credibility, even though the characters talk about them for moments on end. They also go on about who sleeps where and what supplies they have. "Tell me your story," they beckon each other, so the strangers do, though on many occasions they don't need any urging.

One woman is "eccentric." We know this because she wears daffy costumes. Early on her sister also dresses funny, but then she doesn't. That sister, it turns out, is practical. For a while, we're not supposed to know that the two are siblings, or what their relationship is; for the duration of the show, I had no clue as to why this secrecy mattered. Another guest, a lonely young woman, is very angry. Let's just say that the reason for this is between her and her Maker, because it's definitely not between her and the audience. And then there's the hard-edged wife and her evenhanded husband. She's compensating for I don't know what; he's an upscale junk dealer who once felt "called." The hosts are an idealistic recent convert to Christianity and her incredibly tolerant husband; you would think that the couple would have a lot to talk about.

Jangle Bells is billed as a comedy, but the secular humor is of the type in which a bungling rescuer is mistaken for a cat burglar and attacked by someone "armed and dangerous" with a mallet-style meat tenderizer. "One of you isn't ready to be rescued yet," is the would-be hero's line when he comes to. The religious humor is hardly better; the punch line to one such joke hinges on the phrase "John 3:16." And when the convert's husband talks about her new faith, he says he thought little of it, assuming it was a fad like "the summer she got excited about garlic." I laughed (no, smiled) exactly twice: when the convert, new to the city in which she's living, says she was "so lonely I would have gone anywhere to talk to people ... even a Bible study," and when, at the end, one guest remarks, "Now that we're leaving, we all turned into pleasant people."

The problem with Jangle Bells is that it wants to jingle, not jangle; to proselytize, not dramatize. So there's much talk about seeing "God's hand in everything," about "what Jesus means to each of us," about how none of them planned to spend Christmas like this, but how they've been brought together by a "Plan." But while this is expected -- A.D. Players is, after all, a Christian theater -- what isn't expected is how trite these discussions are. Religious content is fine, but it, like any other content, has to be made interesting if you want to hold an audience. To say that this is a show for followers doesn't obviate its dramaturgical responsibilities; Jangle Bells lays claim to being a play, not a sermon.

But what passes for a revelation here is the remark, "To God, I'm Harry, because of Christmas." Though there's a "professional atheist" in the group, the text and its mouthpieces (they're not really characters, or even types) never get beyond standard questions and answers about pain and suffering and belief and redemption. The interminable Act Two, in particular, is little more than Sunday school, culminating in an allegory of a climax about, of all strained things, scrap metal. "Here it is Christmas and we're talking about religion," one character remarks. Hardly. By the final curtain the Word is spread, a marriage patched, a suicide prevented, a romance begun and a reunion promised. Apparently, God does work in mysterious ways.

George's direction, though, is no mystery: it's simultaneously heavy-handed and nonexistent. The ensemble stands (and sits -- oh, do they ever sit) around, glued to the messages that hang in the paradoxically overladen and wholesome air. With no humor or grace, George ushers the cast on and off, mostly two by two. (How they go where they go is George-the-director's problem; why they do so is George-the-playwright's. She attends to neither.) Pratfalls fall flat, and issues aren't so much trotted out as plunked down.

Only two participants can take some pride in being associated with this show. One, from the otherwise blandly proficient cast, is Melody Thomas, whose socialite wife is memorably caustic. The other is scenic designer Don Hollenbeck Jr., who creates a sleek apartment with a sunken living room, hardwood floors and a stately terrace. The decor is minimalistic. Jangle Bells, though, is simply empty. There's no window to the soul here.

A Christmas Memory plays through December 24 at Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas Avenue, 227-2807.

Jangle Bells plays through December 31 at Grace Theater, 2710 West Alabama, 526-2721.

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Peter Szatmary