By Karen Isaacs
Three years ago, Rob Ruggiero, artistic director of TheaterWorks in Hartford, had a brilliant idea for an adult holiday show: a series of sketches featuring the adult versions of those kids that won our hearts in holiday stories and movies. This year it is returning through Wednesday, Dec. 23.
So he enlisted seven contemporary playwrights with connections to the theater, to write the sketches. The setting? “A local bar in a lonely corner of the cosmos, Christmas Eve” the program tells us.
We have the requisite elderly bartender who listens carefully and occasionally responds.
Who wanders into this bar? The characters that “became real” because we have loved them so. Each is now an adult and each life has taken some unexpected turns. The pieces themselves range from heartfelt to farcical but each is in keeping with the original work for which it is a sequel.
Some of the characters are less easily recognizable. I heard some audience members checking with neighbors about the second playlet: this one features Susan, the daughter in the movie Miracle on 34th Street. Those who know the film will recognize the subtle references to the film that Jonathan Tolins incorporated including the house on Primrose Street, but Susan is perhaps the least familiar character. Yet, this one is touching as Susan reveals to the bartender, played by Ronn Carroll in his third year in the role, how she has become almost a replica of her mother – guarded, untrusting, demanding.
The show opens with “All Grown Up” which gives us one of the most iconic holiday characters: Ralphie from A Christmas Story. Here the adult Ralph reveals not only what happen to the Old Man and his mother but also to him.
The third and fourth playlets are more broadly comical: “Say It Glows” features an obviously gay Herbie the Elf from the TV animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Herbie dishes the dirt about Rudolph and how Herbie got some revenge but also suffered.
Following Herbie is “Going Green” featuring Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas which Matthew Lombard has written in Seussical rhyme. Cindy Lou is disheveled and possibly alcoholic. Her life is a mess.
Tiny Tim appears – does anyone need to be reminded of the work he appeared in? – looking like a Victorian London street person. He has become cynical, and talks of Scrooge’s “psychotic break.”
Maria from The Nutcracker arrives next in a scene by Edwin Sánchez. Her life is also a mess. She is attempting to stay young for her never aging, handsome nutcracker prince who seems attracted to her brother. She projects a desperateness as she sits at the bar, drinking vodka and crushing peanuts with nutcrackers.
The evening ends with a sweet piece by Jacques Lamarre (of Hartford) about Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl. It is the only piece where all three cast members are together on stage. This has always been my favorite piece, striking just the right combination of humor and pathos that was so much a part of Peanuts.
I was particularly impressed this year with Ronn Carroll as the bartender. Each year he has deepened his performance. As he listens to these stories, his reactions fit perfectly – uncomfortable as Herbie makes a move on him, irritation as Clara keeps making jokes about his age. He delivers his comments and often sage advice with warmth and gentleness. He cares!
Matthew Wilkas is new to the male roles, yet he bring his own style to each character. I found his Herbie more physical than last year but my memory may be faulty. I enjoyed his physicality as he jumps on bar stools and the bar itself and strokes the bartender, to his obvious discomfort.
Jenn Harris is returning as the women in the piece. Two of these women – Cindy Lou Who and Clara – are broader characters and more obviously dysfunctional than the male characters. She is comfortable with the broader comedy and makes Cindy Lou Who really slutty. But I was most taken with her performance as the red-haired girl in the last scene.
Rob Ruggiero has directed this with great talent – each scene moves and none go on too long.
A quick warning: This is not for children or perhaps even younger teens. The humor sometimes involves sexual references and the idea that even some of these iconic families end with divorce and unhappiness might be disturbing. Last year, though, my 13-year-old granddaughter did enjoy it.
What is particularly nice about these playlet is that while each of the characters has problems and may be cynical about the holiday season, each leaves the bar with renewed hope thanks to the bartender.
So if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Cindy Lou Who, or did the fairy tale of Maria and the Nutcracker end happily or even if you wondered about Ralphie, his BB gun and his family, you will find Christmas on the Rocks an enjoyable 90 minutes.
Christmas on the Rocks is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Wednesday, Dec. 23. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org.
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