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Stage Review: Mrs. Cratchit sparks Christmas revenge

Friday, November 15, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Tip an extra fifth of rum into the eggnog, force down another slice of stale fruitcake, drowse off in front of late-night Christmas re-runs, and the resulting fitful dream might turn out something like "Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge," the determinedly frivolous holiday entertainment having its world premiere at City Theatre.

'Mrs. Bob Cratchit's
Christmas Binge'

WHERE: City Theatre, Bingham and 13th streets, South Side.

WHEN: Through Dec. 22; 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; 5:30 and 9 p.m. Sat.; 7 p.m. Sun.; some weeks vary, so check for times.

TICKETS: $25-$35; student/senior discounts; 412-431-CITY.


Not that everyone's mental byways duplicate those of playwright Christopher Durang. He's been comically free-associating for years, and for all his apparent slapdash and meander, he's too insidious a jester-satirist not to have method in his madness. The made-up-on-the-spot style is simply the appropriate tool with which to deconstruct a holiday tradition carved in petrified fruitcake.

And not that your dream would be half so funny. Tracy Brigden's slick production enlists an inventive group of actors to send up the iconic "Christmas Carol" characters, exacting gleeful revenge for every boring, earnest Christmas pageant ever painfully endured. The fact that several of these actors have been gainfully employed in the annual Dickensian orgy hereabouts can only add to their subversive pleasure.

This happy perversion of Dickens is emceed by a black female Ghost ("I don't believe we have Negroes in 1843 London," Scrooge objects) who triples as Past, Present and Future, but who keeps mixing up the scenes. Right off she runs into a Mrs. Cratchit who won't play along, and in spite of her skills in behavior modification she eventually needs help from Clarence, the now-winged angel from "It's a Wonderful Life."

Rather to everyone's surprise, the Ghost ends up supervising a Scrooge and Mrs. Cratchit make-over, and the final moral of the fractured tale escapes her completely.

Who could resist?

The wild binge, it turns out, isn't really Mrs. Cratchit's -- she's too rational and depressive for that, no matter how much grog she stuffs down (and how does she keep getting served at her local dive, when there's no money for Christmas dinner? -- but never mind). The binge is really Durang's and ours, as we indulge naughty revisionist revenge on the pious platitudes about Christmas cheer and good will to men for which Dickens is the most prestigious shill.

As I say, interspersed with the abundant laughter, there's plenty of substance. The treacly Tiny Tim, for example, realizes that his privileged position as object of charitable concern is threatened if sister Martha gets too cute. (She's renamed Little Nell, as Durang rummages through other Dickensian memories; a law firm is named Havisham, Heep and Fagin.) And since Dickens and Durang both know that pathos is a marketable commodity, it's perfectly reasonable that Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling show up to enlist Scrooge in their Energy Units scheme.

The show could logically be named "Ebeneezer Meets Gladys" (Durang's name for Mrs. C.) or "Scrooge and Mrs. C.'s Therapeutic Rehabilitation." Its chief insight is that poverty is hell, not cute, and Mrs. C. shouldn't have to put up with exploitation by her schmuck husband or Dickens or us. There's nothing wrong with her and Scrooge that a change of century can't cure: All they need is the modern gospel of screw-your-neighbor greed to set them free.

But just who is the real object of Durang's spoof? At a theater where the conventional pre-show announcement about cell-phones and candy wrappers has been sold as a advertising promotion, with the lobby turned into a furniture showroom and who can be sure what product placements in the show itself, a critique of the marketability of pathos has a way of rebounding on the ironists.

Indeed, if money is the only dependable measure of value -- Mrs. Cratchit, Scrooge and Wall Street are sure that it is, and you can guess what City's business manager is forced to think -- an attack on greed is just reflex nostalgia. There's so much cant about Christmas that Scrooge may as well be right, excepting only his neglect of his own comfort. What we need are well-adjusted curmudgeons! Scrooge turns into a capitalist hero as soon as his personal oddities are cleared up.

Durang omits the whole Nephew Fred subplot, probably because he's not neurotic enough to be sympathetic or interesting.

First among a skilled crew of comic actors, Kristine Nielsen gives Mrs. C. a slant grin that teeters between hysteria and insight. Somehow she keeps a basically unvaried role humorously fresh. As Scrooge, Douglas Rees gets a role worthy of his considerable improv skills, tracing a plausible arc from legendary caricature to modern business success, and his Tourette's syndrome impression is rich. (Do not look to Durang for political correctness -- that's one of his favorite targets.)

January Murelli is the winsome Ghost, commanding to start, bewildered by the end, but smiling throughout. Martin Giles plays the sappiest Bob you were ever happy to see exploited, and Darren Focareta's Not-So-Tiny Tim is fiendishly gooey -- you'll never take Tiny Tim seriously again, if you ever did.

As Marley, Larry John Meyers gives us a preview of his King Lear, and his Clarence is beatifically unique. I wish we could see more of Jeff Howell's and Sheila McKenna's dipsy Fezziwigs, who morph easily into the orphan exploiters from "Oliver!" Matthew Gaydos and Elena Passarello have several choice bits -- their Edvar and Hedvig (don't ask) are delicious, but so are his George Bailey and surly Serena and her Angel Monica.

Did I mention it's a musical? Durang uses songs to extend the parody and lash out at every assault by incessant carols you've ever suffered.

It runs about two hours and 10 minutes, except when the lights blow, as they briefly did opening night. There is also effective use of strobe light.

Designers Jeff Cowie, Elizabeth Hope Clancy and Rick Martin do good work but wisely leave the focus to the actors. Still, I love that portrait over the fireplace and the rubber swan.

"Mrs. Bob" is a rollicking parody that caters to our desire to have our traditional holiday and mock it, too, like "Inspecting Carol," "SantaLand Diaries," "A Tuna Christmas" and the rest. These anti-Christmas entertainments grow in popularity even as we pursue commercialized, platitudinized Christmas with increased expenditure. If Durang allows recent references in the script to be regularly up-dated, "Mrs. Bob" should settle into a long and profitable life.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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