It wasn't all that many months ago that Avenue Q premiered at the Vineyard Theatre, using puppets as an integral part of its storytelling. Can lightning strike twice in the same place? That's no doubt the question on the mind everyone involved with the latest play with puppets to arrive at the Vineyard, The Long Christmas Ride Home. Whatever this show's future, it's a richly deserving and rewarding play.
There's plenty of entertainment to be found, too, but it's of the more serious, introspective sort one would expect from a show based on the art of Bunraku, Japanese puppet theatre. As directed by Mark Brokaw, The Long Christmas Ride Home seamlessly integrates American theatrical comedy and the centuries-old art form into a unique and very special show that, puppets or no, feels like nothing else to show up recently on the New York boards.
It all starts with the story, which finds a husband and wife (Mark Blum and Randy Graff) driving their three children, Stephen, Rebecca, and Claire (the show's primary puppet characters) home after a catastrophic Christmas dinner with their grandparents. Blum and Graff, in the car's front seat, narrate the action while their children - portrayed primarily by three actors (Will McCormack, Catherine Kellner, and Enid Graham respectively), with a number of additional puppeteers cloaked in black from head to toe providing assistance - fight, argue, threaten to get sick, and so on.
These puppets, beautifully designed by Basil Twist, have a near-complete range of motion that allows every extremity and every joint to define a character emotionally by representing them with exacting physical precision. This is most striking because the manipulators don't seem to be controlling their puppets, but rather allowing the children's characters to express themselves; each one has hopes, fears, and dreams, that are fully realized dramatically.
Brokaw and Vogel accentuate this through common rudiments of modern American theatre - spotlights, staged flashbacks, and internal monologues all treated in the most up-to-date of ways. The resulting blend of the traditional and the contemporary is justified in the show as being created in Stephen's mind when he's inspired by a Japanese culture presentation during a church service, but it didn't have to be - it just makes sense.
But that's because Vogel has fulfilled her responsibility by keeping each child firmly characterized in the text. This becomes vital in the final third of the show, when, through dramatic flashforwards, we see the lives of each of the children ten years or so down the line as they were created on the night of the fateful car trip. The puppeteers' work, which fosters the latent innocence of childhood, makes all this credible; it's unlikely that actual child actors, even the best available, would have the same chilling transformative effect.
Unfortunately, this section also contains Vogel's weakest work, much of it drenched in the clichés the rest of the play eschews for blistering originality. But the show itself overcomes the problems because the overarching goal is never lost. Every new event feels like a natural extension of what came before, because McCormack, Kellner, and Graham consistently maintain their connections to the characters earlier actions and personalities throughout.
Their work is excellent, which is par for the course here. Graff and Blum, as the joruri-style narrators who not only must play their own characters but voice their children (often without missing a beat), provide effective (and often hilarious) anchoring forces for the story, and Sean Palmer is quite funny in his roles as two different grandparents and the enterprising church minister. Matthew Acheson, Oliver Dalzell, Erin K. Orr, Marc Petrosino, Sarah Provost, and Lake Simons are the other puppeteers; they never speak, but they seem nothing short of wonderful and irreplaceable.
The last member of the company is the musician, Luke Notary, whose accompaniment is as vital in setting the scenes as Neil Patel's curtain-driven open playing area of a set, Jess Goldstein's unobtrusive costumes, and Mark McCullough's expressive lighting. Notary's percussion-heavy, Japanese-inspired music is sometimes pounding, sometimes lightly rhythmic, sometimes suggestively comic, but it's always a welcome addition, though it often sounds overly and senselessly amplified for the small-sized Vineyard Theatre.
Still, the music's volume level can't drown out the disarming simplicity and quietly charming nature of The Long Christmas Ride Home. While by no standards a traditional holiday play, it's perfect for providing the warm, fulfilled feeling that makes you feel better at this time of the year or any other.