Theater Review - Spiked eggnog

PushPush roasts Christmas with seasonal shows

PushPush has painted its set red for its pair of Christmas plays Holidays on Thin Ice II and Season’s Greetings. It’s not the festive, bright red of a Santa Claus suit, but more of a dull crimson akin to dried blood. Looking at the walls and stage floor puts you less in the mood for yuletide entertainment than some kind of twisted David Lynch tableau.

The locally written short plays that make up Holiday on Thin Ice II aren’t as dark as that, but David Sedaris’ Season’s Greetings may be even more morbid. Together they make a bracing tonic against the inescapable, artificial holiday cheer that permeates December, although the plays can be so acidic that the cure may be worse than the disease.

Thin Ice II isn’t entirely bereft of the Christmas spirit. Karla Jennings’ “And Then She Came Back” has a heart-warming depiction of a daughter (Claire Bronson) coping with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother (Dianne Cusack-Butler). The two attend Christmas mass, where the ritual responses provide a counterpoint to their fractious conversation. Without overstaying its welcome, Jennings’ play builds to a moment of bittersweet reconciliation, tenderly played by the actresses.

Janece Schaffer’s “Holiday Pow-wow in the John” is more of a comedic sketch, but it still has a ring of truth. A divorcing woman (Angele Masters) seeking reassurance intrudes on a male friend (Nick Rhoton) in the bathroom during a Christmas party. The guy becomes increasingly flustered as more and more women join them in the lavatory, until he becomes a kind of captive participant in an uninhibited discussion that ranges from turkey bloat to yeast infections.

Rhoton delivers the theater’s curtain speech dressed up as the Easter Bunny, and rants about being invited to participate in the PushPush show and getting disrespected. Rhoton plays a different kind of slow-burning role in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Lauren Gunderson’s riff on the familiar idea of a too-pushy Salvation Army bell-ringer.

“Chanukah” by Bran Peacock and Chris Fallaw proves a thin but droll one-joke work about a radio announcer trying to pronounce the Jewish holiday: Told that the “C” is silent, he asks “Then why isn’t it ‘Ristmas’?” It’s a shame that the Alliance’s The Bench beat PushPush to the punch with the same joke.

“The Found Art of Letter Writing” begins with promise, depicting a public broadcasting reading of Christmastime letters between a Civil War soldier and his sweetheart, with Scott Poythress and Tracy Martin playing the actors. A technical glitch forces Martin’s character to improvise her responses with a salty, withering modern sensibility that makes no sense given the play’s premise. It doesn’t help that Martin exaggerates her role past the point of caricature, as if she’s trying to out-shout the mom from “Malcolm in the Middle.”

Thin Ice II’s final short, Clint Thornton’s “Presents,” involves a dysfunctional family enduring its annual holiday traditions with the aid of eggnog spiked with hallucinogens. Featuring a churchgoing mom (Cusack-Butler) brandishing a shotgun and a beatific stranger (Bryan Mercer) who beams, “Thanks for the birthday party!” “Presents” could use some trimming, but it still amuses.

Season’s Greetings, playing on off-nights and after Thin Ice II on weekends, has a similar suburban setting. David Sedaris, perhaps the funniest humorist writing today, has made a dramatic monologue of his short story “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!” much as he did with his classic essay Santaland Diaries, which continues to be a tradition at Horizon Theatre.

Season’s Greetings takes the form of a holiday newsletter, here read by shell- shocked homemaker Jocelyn Dunbar (Mary Lynn Owen). In the stage version, she’s surrounded by scrawled sheets of paper from which she gradually reads a tale of holiday woe. Chief among the Dunbars’ troubles are their daughter’s squalling crack baby and the 22-year-old Vietnamese prostitute who arrives at their door identifying Mr. Dunbar as her father.

Directed by Jim Peck, Season’s Greetings offers an intelligent treatment of the wrong interpretation of the material. Given all that befalls Mrs. Dunbar, Owen’s beaten, exhausted portrayal is perfectly credible, and she amusingly swills whiskey from a snowman mug. But you expect a housewife who lives on “714 Tiffany Circle” and writes with so many exclamation points to strive for more of a Martha Stewart veneer of domestic perfection — especially when faced with incest, xeno-phobia, drug addiction and homicide. Without that comic incongruity, Season’s Greetings offers little more than indignant complaint, capped off by a terrible turn of events.

Santaland found humor by putting Sedaris’ sardonic personality in kitschy surroundings, but Greetings takes an opposite approach, subjecting a conservative personality to grotesque episodes. The PushPush production seems to miss the joke, despite Owen’s game efforts.