Theater Review - Survival Guide, Every Christmas take toothless bites out of the holidays

How do you go ho-ho-ho with Christmas, instead of at it?

Atlanta playhouses let Linus Van Pelt do the heavy lifting this holiday season. Both Stage Door Players' A Christmas Survival Guide and Actor's Express's Every Christmas Story Ever Told effectively stop in their tracks to recreate Linus' quotation of the Book of Luke from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." In both plays, an actor asks, "Lights, please?" before harking back to the first noel.

Both plays use Linus' sermon on "What Christmas is all about" as kind of an inoculation against their irreverence. Neither show can be accused of waging a satirical War on Christmas if they point out that Jesus is the reason for the season, while the scene's nostalgia factor should appeal to non-Christians. Christmas cash cows bring an implicit risk: How do you make light of the holidays without alienating audiences who take it seriously? How do you go ho-ho-ho with Christmas, instead of at it?

Neither A Christmas Survival Guide nor Every Christmas Story Ever Told makes much of a statement about the holidays and will probably be completely forgotten by Boxing Day. Survival at least presents a charming performance of a toothless concept, but Story botches a potentially intriguing idea so thoroughly that its energetic actors can't save it.

Survival builds a framing device around its ensemble — Marcie Millard, Wendy Melkonian and Craig Waldrip — reading the same self-help book at the holidays. At times, the show's Burl Ives-style snowman seems to be reading passages. It seldom critiques Christmas itself, but merely encourages people to let go of their stress to celebrate the festivities. Director Robert Egizio embraces the 1970s variety-show qualities of the evening: It's easy to imagine the likes of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gourme crooning the material.

The show plays it straighter than the title suggests. When Melkonian croons "All Those Christmas Clichés," she's not lamenting them but pining for them. Millard's "Christmas Eve" and Melkonian's "Little Girl Blue" bring the show to a halt with their sentimental solos, although there's a warm sketch with Waldrip as a department store Santa connecting with Millard as a friendless adult woman.

Survival clicks when it plays for laughs. Melkonian and Millard are natural comediennes as a ditzy flirt and harried grump, respectively. Melkonian sings a loopy, Marlene Dietrich-style torch song about Mrs. Claus, "Surabaya Santa," while Millard performs an increasingly frantic, co-dependent version of "The Twelve Steps of Christmas." Millard's natural sense of comedic timing and exaggeration make her the stand-out player from either show.

Compared to his co-stars, Waldrip lacks the same sense of comedic ease, but fortunately has the musical chops to compensate. He channels Elvis with "Santa Claus is Back in Town" (wearing a red-and-white jumpsuit to match) and belts out a terrific, sincere version of "O Holy Night," the most operatic of the classic Christmas carols.

Every Christmas Story Ever Told seems to follow the fast-forward model of shows like The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Chad Martin introduces the show with his dark, brooding take on A Christmas Carol, but his co-star Bren Thomas objects that the Scrooge play has been done to death. (He has a point.) Amber Chaney, as the show's know-it-all, joins to suggest they do every famous Christmas story, saving Scrooge for the end.

Story relies on tepid spoofs of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "The Gift of the Magi" and "Gustav the Green-Nosed Reingoat" (Rudolph being under copyright), while footnoting numerous other movies and specials. The playwrights don't seem to have any particular satiric take on the material, and despite the quantity of yuletide shows and TV specials, strays from the premise to include a fake game show about fruitcake and a sketch about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Neither vignette proves funny enough to justify their inclusion.

Some of Story's most interesting notions similarly stray from the topic, like tidbits about Christmas in other countries (including the traditions of cruel Santas who punish naughty kids) and a rousing musical number that seems to encompass every famous Christmas song. The players all have strengths but can't redeem Every Christmas Story Ever Told's half-assed script, which suggests a promising toy that your dad didn't bother to put together.

Perhaps the most substantial Christmas comedy is The Santaland Diaries, a perennial production at Horizon Theatre. I haven't seen it in years, but the adaptation of David Sedaris' famed account of being a Macy's elf offers a sardonic perspective on human behavior and commercialism in the holiday pressure cooker, with grace notes that feel unforced. Compared to Santaland, A Christmas Survival Guide and Every Christmas Story Ever Told don't have much to say. At least Survival says it with charm.

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