SF Playhouse serves up a Cratchit-y Christmas
three stars Holiday hilarity
Gladys Cratchit is not having a merry Christmas.
Her husband, Bob, is a sap, a boob and a goody-goody. She has 21 starving children — including Tiny Tim, whom she refers to as a crippled idiot — and not an ounce of maternal concern.
There will be no Christmas goose or hot pudding at the Cratchits’ this year because Bob’s meager salary has been cut in half. So, for Gladys, there’s only one option: have a few drinks at the pub then jump off the London Bridge.
Can’t you just feel the holiday warmth emanating from Christopher Durang’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge? The irreverent 2002 comedy has knocked around Bay Area community theaters, but the play is only now having its professional San Francisco premiere courtesy of SF Playhouse.
Director Joy Carlin — long associated with American Conservatory Theater’s annual A Christmas Carol — knows her way around Dickens’ moralistic tale and helps make up in style what Durang’s play lacks in substance.
Ostensibly, Durang wants to give Dickens a good shake and knock off the cutesy-poo crust that has begun to encase A Christmas Carol, which, if you actually read the story, is pretty harsh and condemning of modern greed and capitalistic cruelty.
Durang knows Dickens makes potent points about our heartless world, but those points are often lost in the rush to make Scrooge a good guy, to save Tiny Tim from an early grave and to keep from scaring the children with all those ghosts.
To sharpen Carol and to keep it from being another blah humbug, Durang employs his trademark wit and cynical silliness. He makes this a post-modern Christmas Carol with a lump of coal where its heart should be.
Joan Mankin is Gladys Cratchit, and Mankin’s woebegone expression is good for a least a dozen laughs. Poor Gladys is misery personified, and her suicidal bent brings in a whole “It’s a Wonderful Life” subplot complete with George Bailey (Arthur Keng) and Clarence the Angel (Brian Degan Scott).
Durang loves mashing up his stories, so he happily skewers Oliver Twist, “Touched By an Angel” and “The Gift of the Magi,” all while deconstructing Christmas Carol.
If the focus of this two-hour romp were, as the title suggests, on Mrs. Cratchit, things would be better, but Durang wants to spend an equal amount of stage time with Scrooge (Victor Talmadge) and his various ghosts (all played by Cathleen Riddley). Talmadge is a ferocious (and funny) Scrooge, but his dealings with Jacob Marley (Terry Rucker) and the dudes from Enron (yes, Enron) steal focus from the “wild binge” we were promised.
Mrs. Cratchit’s home life is hysterical in every sense. Her husband (Keith Burkland) simpers nonstop. She keeps most of her children in the root cellar, though we do meet two nameless tykes (Gideon Lazarus and Madeleine Pauker sharing the roles with Olivia Scott Dahrouge and Henry Kinder) as well as the bonkers Li’l Nell (Jean Forsman) and Tiny Tim (the hilariously wide-eyed Lizzie Calogero).
By the time Scrooge and the ghost arrive, it’s no wonder Gladys wants to go with them. Durang’s one great conceit is that romantic sparks fly between Ebenezer and Gladys — it just feels right — though his late ’70s coda is terribly dated and lacks the requisite comic punch.
Special mention must be made of Megan Smith, a comic actor of considerable skill, who, when she’s not playing the bass or guitar during the musical numbers, mugs wonderfully in several choice supporting roles (including the Bob’s brainless second wife).
This Binge may not be as wild as it could be, and the laughs may not be as large, but time with Mrs. Cratchit is a delicious antidote to seasonal commercialism and heartless bleatings of “bless us everyone.”
Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge continues through Jan. 12 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.