If you've seen one too many productions of A Christmas Carol and, upon hearing Tiny Tim optimistically proclaim "God bless us every one!", you wish someone would expose him for the attention-grabbing urchin he is, you should make tracks to the City Theatre immediately to see Christopher Durang's Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. The Dickens classic isn't the only Christmas tradition lampooned by Mr. Durang - you can also see bits of Oliver Twist, It's a Wonderful Life and The Old Curiosity Shop join the mix of metaphors and jabs at more contemporary targets.
Commissioned by the City and directed by the City's Artistic Director, Tracy Brigden, Binge seems at times still in the formation stage. It takes a while for the play to get to the crux of the matter; that is, the crisis experienced by Bob Cratchit's wife, Gladys, who has had it up to here with Bob, Tim, and her other twenty children (many of whom must stay in the root cellar due to space constrictions in the Cratchit abode). Before we get to Mrs. Cratchit, we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge, both old and young, as well as the versatile Ghost of Christmases Past, Present and Future (January Murelli), who has a bit of trouble navigating the time travel needed to get Scrooge in the proper place to learn the proper lesson.
Once things concentrate on Mrs. Cratchit and her dilemma, the pace picks up considerably. Played hysterically by Kristine Nielsen (Betty's Summer Vacation), Gladys is unhappy with everyone and everything in her life (the breaking point being Bob's arrival with the 21st foundling), finds her self being the "bad mummy" more often than the "good mummy," and wants to go to a bar, down a few Tequila Surprises and jump off the London Bridge. Imagine her relief to find that she is simply placed in the wrong time period (and is Scrooge's soul mate), which is eventually rectified by the Ghost of all three Christmases. Nielsen affects the perfect loopy facial expression and really delivers the laughs in the role that must have been the most fun for Durang to write.
Douglas Rees is a physically perfect Ebenezer Scrooge. He is a talented comedic actor, even when slinging insults, but he seems a bit awkward delivering the frequent stuttering "bah, humbugs"'s that are excused as symptoms of Tourette's syndrome. The Cratchit family is well-represented by Martin Giles (Bob), Darren E. Focareta (Tiny Tim), and Sheila McKenna (a misplaced Little Nell). Tiny Tim and Little Nell provide several highlights in the show with their frequent clamoring for sympathy. Most of the cast plays more than one role, and Focareta and McKenna reappear as Fezziwigs in a very funny scene with wonderfully over the top costumes (and Jeff Howell as Mr. Fezziwig, with a wig like the swirl of a Dairy Queen cone). Several local child actors also join in, as young Scrooge and Marley as well as the numerically named Child #1 and Child #2 who live above the root cellar. Overall, the cast is excellent, handling the comedy, the limited dance and four original Christmassy songs with skill - even the children in the root cellar join in the chorus.
The simple sets by Jeff Cowie consist mostly of cut-out flats depicting 1800s architecture and easy-on, easy-off basic furniture set pieces. Costuming by Elizabeth Hope Clancy is inspired, at times brilliant. Particular standouts are in the afore-mentioned Fezziwig scene and in the hilarious takeoff on Gift of the Magi with suicidal Dutchman Edvar (Matthew Gaydos) and bald Dutchwoman, Hedwig (Elena Passarello).
Though full of satire, Binge is a lighter send-up than earlier satirical works like Betty's Summer Vacation. A grab-bag of parody gags, many of the jokes are contemporary references, which may not play too well in future productions. One weak point is the denouement for Gladys and Ebenezer, which heavily relies on a long targeted 1980s icon, a reference which seems tired in 2002. Durang has a knack for writing the kind of zinger that makes you say to yourself, "that's what I thought," but you never thought it with such wit. Overall, this is a funny, if not quite perfect, evening which will aid in cutting the saccharine sentiments that prevail at this time of year.
Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge has been extended through December 22 at the City Theater main stage. For performance and ticket information, call 412-431-CITY or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org.
Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge