by Michael Bowen
The script of the Civic's current production of A Christmas Story (on the Main Stage through Dec. 20) is the theatrical version of a filmization of a novel based on some radio monologues.
We're already at several removes from a highly verbal original. Back in the day, Jean Shepherd's radio talks offered many wise insights into the illusions of kids and the disillusionments of adulthood.
They were funny, and they were expressed entirely in the narrator's voice. But in the stage version, playwright/adapter Phil Grecian over-relies on the narrator-figure and runs all the good jokes into the ground. Grecian's script gathers jokes about what's for dinner tonight, and those obnoxious dogs next door, and about how much Dad salivates over the prospect of a nice roasted Christmas turkey, and (especially) about the long list of specific characteristics and components of the BB gun that little Ralphie wants for Christmas.
His script repeats these jokes, expecting to capitalize on playgoers' delight in recognizing what had amused them 10 minutes before. In fact, it relies on this technique a lot.
Frequently. Many, many times.
Trouble is, Shepherd's jokes were once funny and wise. Still, even with a script that loops endlessly, some careful characterizations and a slam-bang, polished production still might gloss over the defects in A Christmas Story.
But some actors under-characterize their parts, others chew scenery, several muff their lines or drop their cues, and the surprisingly high number of special effects and lighting tricks called for in a play about 1930s Indiana may have just outrun the Civic's technical capabilities.
The plot centers on adult Ralph's reminiscences about his obsession with manipulating Mom and Dad into buying him a particular kind of BB gun for Christmas. Little Ralphie has to deal with bullies, cutesy classmates, a demanding teacher, a mother with limited kitchen skills and a father who's either cussing out the furnace or getting frantic over his chances in the latest mail-in contest.
For the adult Ralph (Scott Finlayson), Susan Berger (costume designer) and Rebecca Cook (makeup and hair) have nicely mimicked the bowl cut and big glasses of his nerdy young counterpart, little Ralphie Parker (Jacob Rees Newell). And director Kathie Doyle-Lipe has devised several sudden entrances-around-corners for Finlayson, so that his adult ruminations blend seamlessly into the acted-out antics from his character's boyhood. Finlayson himself, during fantasy sequences in which he portrays Ralphie's cowboy hero or the guy at the local Christmas tree lot, shows a talent for concise characterization.
Too bad he didn't do the same for the major narrator figure. Left as just a bland nerd, and with lines dropped and cues not picked up, the adult Ralph becomes a colorless commentator on a slow-moving recitation of episodic jokes. Shepherd's humor often derives from a kind of you-can-laugh-at-me sarcasm that doesn't undermine the value of a family's nurturing emotional warmth. In many speeches, Finlayson misses the sarcastic edge.
Peter Hardie's multi-level set contains surprises, and the dream sequences drawn from movies are genuinely funny, but an episodic plot isn't served well by the mix of over- and under-acting in this production. Often, the pace is so slow that sitting through this nostalgic comedy about a Midwestern Christmas in the '30s is more of a chore than a joy.
As Ralphie's father, the Old Man, Patrick Sweet is continually mugging shamelessly and often funny doing so. He has some facial expressions and knee-dips, delivered at the ends of lines, that work to good comedic effect. But by carrying them on through his lines also, he misses the potential for a more naturalistic, less manic view of the family's quirky but still loving Dad.
The kid actors -- always a mixed lot -- fare pretty well here, actually providing some nuances to their characterizations. Newell makes a convincing nerd on a mission. Spence Watson manages to take a one-note character (poor wimpy Flick) and turn him into an object of sympathy who's still funny and memorable. Mackie Hockett plays the know-it-all as more than just a brain: She can face down the local bully, the wonderfully named Scut Farkas (Andrew Watson).
When the adults follow suit and push their characters into definition, the evening's highlights result. One fantasy sequence that transformed the schoolteacher (Marnie Rorholm) and the mother (Ann Gillum) into Wizard of Oz characters, for example, was so sudden, unexpected and well done that it deserved and received delighted, spontaneous applause. But long stretches of the evening were met with polite coughs, glances at wristwatches and seat-shifting.
And those repeated jokes ("you'll shoot your eye out"). If I hear a recitation of every single component in the Red Ryder BB gun ever again, I might go out looking to shoot somebody in the face, all right, and then stomp on some kid's Christmas pie.
Christmas plays don't usually make me irritable. They're not supposed to.
Publication date: 11/27/03