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'Tis the @#$%-ing Season

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Just what you always wanted: a snazzily dressed young man walking past you singing "O Holy Night," before turning around, standing within inches of you, and then screaming seeming non-sequiturs directly in your face. Merry Christmas!

In most cases, you'd probably spray him with mace and run. But hold off just this once - this is no ordinary crazy person, this is Rob Maitner. And if the initial minutes of his performance in 'Tis the !@#$%-ing Season! are on the abrasive side, don't let that worry you: Just give him just 10 more to get your heart, soul, and funny bone warmer than if you'd drunk a gallon of fresh eggnog.

If you caught Maitner as the flamboyant chaplain in the summer's Fringe Festival hit Fleet Week, you're likely not surprised. He's one of Off-Off-Broadway's premiere song-and-dance men, with a forehead-slapping flair for comedy that many Broadway actors could learn from. But in "Why Am I Attracted to Narcissists? A Christmas Story," one of two playlets comprising this erratically entertaining holiday show at the Lion Theatre, he also lets you in on a dirty little secret: He has a sensitive side.

Okay, so it's just as riotous as his comic side. But his portrayal of a tortured woman with a taste for big men in red suits and white beards is flooded with more colors than just the expected red and green. Loss. Lust. Excitement. Disappointment. Regret. Revenge. And maybe - just maybe - there's some Christmas cheer mixed in between rueful vignettes about receiving gift-wrapped charcoal or romancing department-store Santas.

Author Kelly Stuart wants us to look beyond the season's snow-dusted myths, fairy tales, and traditions on which modern Christmas is based to question why and how everything happens. Everything comes together in this one mysterious woman, who seems to be the very lynchpin for every imaginable facet of the holiday spirit. Sometimes the jokes she tells are deceptively obvious ("And that's when the elves attacked" is one especially showstopping punch line), sometimes they're obviously deceptive (the specific context for "He came down my chimney" shouldn't be mentioned here).

But everything connects in Maitner's intricately crafted performance, and working with Stuart and director Adam Fitzgerald, he keeps presenting more gifts for you to open, until you're seat-deep in theatrical crumpled wrapping paper. No, not every line is the equivalent of a new bicycle or an Xbox 360, but so many are such direct bull's-eyes that you're left remembering it as a consistently hilarious evening, irrespective of its oddly integrated climax in which one Santa (an underutilized David Gurland) strips and... Well, let's not spoil the surprise - half the fun is the waiting, right?

"Why Am I Attracted to Narcissists?" is more than half the evening's fun; "The First Annual St. Ignatius Chanukah Pageant," however, probably looks better on paper than onstage. Writers Mac Rogers, Sean Williams, and Jordana Williams (also the director) have come up with an idea so clever, it's hard to believe it hasn't already been seen on Saturday Night Live or MadTV: The heavily Christian town of Cricket Creek honors a newly arrived Jewish family by putting on a musical extravaganza detailing the history of Chanukah (or, as described here, "the Jewish version of our Christmas").

This involves a cup of condescension (the pageant's one Jewish performer, played by Brian M. Golub, delivers most of his lines like a Borscht Belt reject), a dash of offensiveness (a "buck up, Jews!"-type song ends with a rapturous praising of Jesus Christ), a sprinkling of the clever (one character is a thinly veiled take off on Tiny Tim), and even a shticky green hand puppet for garnish. But the songs, while pleasant, are forgettable, the show-within-the-show jokily inept rather than laughably awful. You always want Rogers, Williams, and Williams to take things two or three steps farther than they're willing to.

A similar problem extends to the performers, who are generally more amusing as the "characters" their characters play than as the characters themselves. Only Amy Goldberger, as the plastic-smiled Madam Rose type determined to make this the best Jewish pageant ever, stands out. She bridges the gap between actress, role, and role-within-role to fashion a demonic portrayal of teeth-grinding tolerance; she's of such maniacal festiveness that you know the performer is completely invested in what she's doing.

Maitner, though, doesn't need to vanish into his role - he subsumes it, making it impossible to tell where the role as written ends and the actor begins. That's a treat any time of year, true, but it's especially appreciated now, at the start of the season's longest, coldest stretch, in which new works with performances this electric aren't exactly regular occurrences. But there's no better time to get in the spirit - you couldn't do much better than to find Maitner under your tree.


'Tis the @#$%-ing Season
Through December 21
1 hour 35 minutes, with no intermission
Lion Theatre, Theatre Row Studios, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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