If you're sick of spending your Christmases in Victorian England, A Broken Christmas Carol is for you. The delightfully demented minds at the Broken Watch Theatre Company have updated Charles Dickens's timeless tale for today's treacherously short attention spans, and if a few bulbs of inspiration remain dark, the company nonetheless capture the story's uplifting essence. Given how pallid this story's reinterpretations tend to be, this alone is reason to think that God's blessed us, every one.
More impressively, playwrights James Christy, J. Holtham, and Kendra Levin have recast Dickens's characters, scenes, and most familiar lines without sacrificing the integrity or heart of the original, even though this version isn't told in a traditionally linear fashion. The result, if sometimes as dry as a Christmas tree that hasn't been watered for a week, is smoother and more moving than you might expect from a conglomeration of Jewish holiday misery, reality television, and racial identification.
Yes, they all play a role. Levin's story, "All I Want for Christmas is Jews," follows Jewish teenagers Wanda and Iggie as they roam the streets of their town in search of the meaning of the mysterious yet widely celebrated Christmas. Holtham's "Yet to Come" centers on Shawn, a successful black man with a white girlfriend who rediscovers his roots with the help of a ghost from his past. Christy's "The Scrooge Show" has rich old villain Ebenezer Scrooge running a reality show in which four less fortunate families are guaranteed a merry Christmas, though one potential clan, the Cratchits, aren't automatically grateful for his philanthropy.
Dickens's original ideas have been so cleverly freshened that it's a shame the individual stories don't mesh together better than they do. It's as if the three plays have been run through a dramaturgical food processor but not thoroughly combined: One scene of one play gives way to a scene in another, and though there are occasional intersections (Iggie is the foul-mouthed Tiny Tim's babysitter, for example), each story generally unfolds independently of the others. This does allow for a charming final scene, in which the true spirit of Christmas is effectively revealed for everyone, but you spend most of the show waiting for payoffs that never entirely arrive.
Much else is similarly uneven: Levin creatively and incisively explores her characters' plights and Christy's thorough routing of exploitative entertainment is very entertaining, but Holtham's characters come to vivid life only intermittently; a ghost from Shawn's past helps him realize his progress in the world, but his visitations of the past and the future don't resonate nearly as strongly as Scrooge's. As for the acting, Keith Arthur Bolden is an energetically introspective Shawn; Leo Lauer is a hoot as the bedraggled Cratchit patriarch; and Janine Barris, J. Clint Allen, and Chaz Brewer provide memorable turns as Wanda, Iggie, and Tiny Tim. The other performers, most notably Guil Fisher as the Trump-like Scrooge and a strangely Semitic store Santa, commit less completely, and do wishy-washy work when firmer choices are called for.
Still, there's a whimsical inventiveness to Joshua Alan Robinson's storybook backdrop, which recalls period ink drawings and instantly transports us to any of a dozen different locales. And director Drew DeCorleto keeps many moments within scenes sparkling, even if a warmer glow seldom suffuses the entire enterprise. That sense of warmth of connection to humanity is part of what's made A Christmas Carol a perennial favorite, and it's what separates the best versions of the story - however fractured - from the rest. This show could do with another dash or two of that feeling, but it's got enough to suggest that this show is far less broken than its title might suggest.
A Broken Christmas Carol