by Michael Bowen
New Christmas plays are a double bind. Theaters need to fill their coffers by putting on shows that entire families will want to attend, but most families want to see the same old stories of Tiny Tim and George Bailey and not a whole lot else.
That's why Producing Artistic Director Robin Stanton and Interplayers are to be commended for selecting, as the plug to fill the Christmas slot this season, a new play -- one that's now receiving (through Dec. 13) only its second production anywhere. The Bench is so good that it has a shot at entering the repertory of small-cast Christmas plays with nationwide appeal.
Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee created The Bench for the Alliance Theater in Atlanta a year ago, intending a kind of comic meditation on the clash between cherished memories and consumerism. Two married guys -- one older (Ed Cornachio), the other thirty-something (Damon Abdallah) are waiting for their wives to finish up shopping. They get into discussions about their family's Christmas memories, the excesses of capitalism and the relative merits of Shaq's L.A. Lakers of today and George Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers of the 1950s.
The bench they're sharing -- done up by Brandon Smith -- looks remarkably familiar. There are window displays for Miaz, Bath and Body Works... The Children's Corner Bookshop? Hey, it's a miniature version of River Park Square, right down to the style of trash receptacle and the mosaic of lakes and rivers.
Insert a few local references (to Liberty Lake, to Sprague Avenue) in a script that originally placed its shoppers at Minnesota's Mall of America, and -- particularly if you'd just come in from shopping on a cold winter's night -- you might find yourself doing a reality double-check.
The blend of everyday and unreal is built into the script, too. Sometimes an ensemble of three way-too-chirpy department-store singers bound onto the stage, spreading phony Christmas cheer (that's, unfortunately, realistic enough); but sometimes the same three actors in the ensemble enact scenes right out of one of the two bench-sitters' imaginations. Somehow the contrast between the set's realistic window displays and the ensemble's outlandish skits makes a nice distinction: the selflessness of our better selves, the manic acquisitiveness of our inner shopping bots.
Musical director Russell Seaton has coached some nice a cappella moments out of the trio of "Finch Singers" in the show. Holli Hornlien and Tim Kniffin have appeared in several Interplayers shows over the past several years while scarcely ever hinting at their obvious choral talent.
Kniffin shines whether he's a homeless freak or a freakishly happy folk singer. Hornlien, in just one of her multiple roles, plays a dour security guard who provides too much personal information at first but then provides plenty of selfless giving. For her part, Annie Lareau can pull off the absurdity of a grumpy Santa's elf, the hubba-hubba appeal of a hot-to-trot holiday carouser and the loveliness of an unaccompanied high alto caroler.
As the younger husband-waiting-on-a-bench, Abdallah demonstrates his acting range from sadness (lamenting absent family members) to comedy (imitations from Mick Jagger to Jimmy Stewart that elicited spontaneous applause). With hints of grief crossing his face, Abdallah suggests the sadness underlying our great communal forced march on happiness every Christmas season -- and yet his character's upbeat moments seem unfeigned, too.
In April 2002, just days before he was to go on in the title role of Visiting Mr. Green, Cornachio suffered a heart attack, and his role was taken over by the Civic's John G. Phillips. So it's especially satisfying to see Cornachio back doing his combination of the warm-hearted but irascible -- don't press his buttons -- onlooker at this great stage of fools, the hordes of RPS shoppers.
Larson and Lee's script contains one disconnected monologue (about Hannukah in Pittsburgh) and one moment of metaphorical overkill -- get off the bench and get on with your life -- but the moments pass quickly.
In the end, despite its newness, The Bench -- like many Christmas plays -- makes some familiar points: the season is about giving and not acquiring; we should celebrate our differences without obsessing over the potential for giving offense; we can only live in the present moment, so stop lingering over past mistakes and do something right now to make amends.
With a small cast, a recognizable setting and a theme tied to a theatergoing time of year, The Bench will be produced again. You can say you saw it when -- when Ed and Damon, when Holli and Tim and Annie, made the laughter and the sadness of Christmas come alive for us once again, right there in River Park Square.
All that, and not a single parking garage joke.
Publication date: 11/27/03