Flash Review, 12-7: Cheer & Jeers
By Paul Ben-Itzak
3/4 of 'A Fifth of Christmas' from SceneShop
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak
FORT WORTH -- Christmas is a loaded time. The thing that makes it precious also curses it for some of us. It's a time of traditions -- but what happens when those traditions change? Particularly for those of us prodigal children who start the inevitable path away from the hearth at 18, and who count on the annual return home as a bulwark, a rock of stability as our world away from the nest becomes precipitously turbulent? In my own family, on Christmas Eve each person would get a present for each other person, as well as contribute to the stockings. Then, as we sat around the Christmas ficus (did I mention this was in pagan San Francisco?) (on our road trip across the country when we were teenagers, my brother once told a Wisconsin bakery owner who welcomed us with "Welcome to God's Country," "We're from San Francisco. We don't believe in God."), we'd take turns opening presents one by one. For me this was not about ceding to the commercialism of what Stan Freberg famously parodied as a 'Green Christmas.' It was about the joy of finding a gift that really matched the interests of the receiver. When the receiver is a family member, it's a way of showing that you really know that person. (The closer in age of my younger brothers, the one who made the God comment, was always a special challenge.) But as soon as I got out of there, the tradition started to evaporate. I think it was the younger of my younger brothers who didn't like his children giving in to the commercialism. Fine, except I always suspected my brothers, who now had their own families, cheated; they could still have separate satellite gift-exchanging sessions with their wives and kids, while I was still a bachelor and alone. And bereft. First the tradition devolved to everyone just getting one gift for one other person; by the time I came home after a three-year absence in 2000, there was also a $10 limit. That fall I had been in Paris and had made some special finds for several family members (and their wives). I guess I thought, given my prolonged absence, my family would understand that this was a rare chance for me to give to them, and would wave the limit for me. But instead, everyone scowled at, ignored, and otherwise made me feel like I bore the mark of Cain. (Eventually giving to each other was eventually outlawed totally; now everyone pitches in $10 to give a heifer to an African village. Humbug.)
This long prelude is by way of thanking Steven Alan McGaw for the exorcism he provided with "Christmas for Grown-ups," the gem of a sketch McGaw penned for himself and Peter Bowden for SceneShop's annual "A Fifth of Christmas," seen Saturday at Arts Fifth Avenue (where I also work very part-time as a children's theater director and playwright, including with another of the program's cast members). Presented in the form of an exchange of letters, e-mails, and phone calls between a father (McGaw) and a son away at college for the first time, the drama is both poignant and authentic. Fathers really are still e-mail illiterate like McGaw's character, who can't figure out how to send one. "Try sending your message as a reply," advises Bowden. (My own father sent his virgin e-mails ALL IN CAPS LIKE THIS.) There is the usual pained awkwardness of a parent who sends a cash gift that remains unacknowledged until the son is prompted; the child, now an adult and chafing for his independence, skirting around that he will not be home for Christmas this year, preferring the company of a classmate's family he doesn't know to the one that raised him. Only.... that one is fractured, the boy's mother and the father's wife having died on Christmas Eve prior, after both had spent days in the hospital watching her pass away. The boy is angry at what he perceives as his dad's glossing over of this and pretending Christmas is still a jolly time. Christmas is not and will never be a happy time after that last edition, he finally blurts out, his mother's death having killed it for him. This actually gives dad his gumption back. With restrained forcefulness -- Just listen to what I'm going to tell you, he essentially says, and then I'll shut up and if you don't want to come home for Christmas, fine -- the father recalls to the son how when he was growing up, his dad used to take over the kitchen every Christmas morning and make breakfast. He always made a wreck of things but his mom accepted it, and it became important to him, because it was a tradition. For him, this became Christmas -- the smells and sounds of that morning. And when his father passed away, he guarded that memory -- the sadness and joy that came with it -- because Christmas is about that too, both the sadness and joy of remembrance, and those will always be part of it for him. In the next exchange (in the staging, McGaw as actor rushed the beginning of the moment, so that it wasn't clear that this was a new episode), the son is calling from... the airport, as the father is in the middle of watching his widowed mother making havoc of his own kitchen as she tries to prepare breakfast. Vail is out; he is home for Christmas.
Christmas -- the non-commercial one -- is supposed to be about the Prince of Peace (even for some of us non-Christians who subscribe to its spirit), and Steven Alan McGaw's "Christmas for Grown-ups" is about making peace with Christmas Past and keeping it as part of Christmas Present. As a work that makes that rare new contribution to the chestnuts of so many Christmas Pasts they sometimes make us glaze over, it should be applauded.
Now comes the awkward family argument part of this Christmas review. All of the sketches presented during "A Fifth of Christmas" were read, from scripts placed on music stands, the actors mostly immobile. While it's understandable that the players -- in addition to McGaw and Bowden, the versatile Peggy Bott Kirby, Jackie Pickard, and Nikki and Nick Irion -- apparently have busy schedules, playing multiple roles both in this evening and in the wider Fort Worth theater community, and thus just didn't have time to memorize the scripts, the ticket-paying audience should have been averted in advance that the theater part of this revue would be a reading, not a full-out production. For 'Grown-ups,' this format worked, as the two characters began by reading from letters. But for McGaw's "Uncle Jackie's Christmas Gift" it was counter-productive. An already overly-cloying and clever (and blue, as in blue language and subject) plot and script were made to seem even more artificial by the actors' sometimes seeming to stumble over their lines. The story revolved around the various enterprises (pot brownie cook, moonshine maker, porn movie producer...) of a biker lady (Kirby) and Uncle Jackie (Pickard) to rope his just out of prison nephew (Nick Irion) into the biker mogul's next film, and just about every joke was obvious.
If the pretense of Kyle Irion's "Science, Bless us Everyone" was also somewhat obvious -- atheist masquerading as believer for new girlfriend he thinks is one is asked by her to fill in as Christmas orator for Sunday school and gives a unique version of the Christ story, hilarity ensues -- hilarity actually did ensue this time thanks to Nick Irion's earnest delivery and Nikki Irion's subdued reaction (as when he explains that Pontius Pilot was a pilot of pontiuses, whatever those are). Christopher Darden flew solo and without a script for his first-person stand-up routine about a downtrodden holiday party host. I laughed with the rest of the audience, but I could have done without this snide private school kid making one of his jokes at the expense of a door-mat salesman. (Party host getting beat-up by his guests works as door-mat salesman. Get it?) Some of us have to do onerous work to fill those stockings, kid; who exactly are you to rob us of our dignity?
A Christmas spectacle wouldn't be one without music, and the highlight here was provided by the Fifth Avenue Hi-Notes, believe it or not an amateur ensemble lead by the very professional Kirby. The winner here, as far as evoking Christmas Pasts of my own favorite bygone days which I can't let go of -- the retro '50s and early '60s -- was Steve Allen's "Cool Yule," which would fit right in with my 33 (that's a record, kids; resembles a VERY LARGE microchip) of Holiday Singalong with Mitch, and made me want to.
Drummer Larry Reynolds made it all truly cool.
By contrast, the numbers by Michael 'Aitch" Price and his Noel Laureates made me want to Singinsteadofthesinger, at least Price did when he took the vocal, usually (to my ears anyway) off-key. I chose instead to focus on locally legendary Sumter Bruton III's choice slices on the electric blues guitar (Bruton also owns local institution Record Town, near the Texas Christian University campus, where he's been overheard to rift authoritatively on Bob Wills), and on Greg Jackson's Christmas green steel-bodied guitar, often played with a slide or bottle-neck. Family, can we make a special exception this year and waive the limit? I haven't been home for Christmas in 11 years, so maybe I have some credit coming?
PS: Getting back to "A Christmas for Grown-ups": I was recently perusing the program for an upcoming major international festival in New York. Like most of downtown theater in Gotham these days, most of the work seemed ripped from the headlines. It seems that you need to get out of the insular 'Big' Apple these days and look to the 'provinces" to find time-transcending drama built for the duration.