Durang harangue

Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge serves a heaping helping of humbug
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The annual relentless prosecution of Christmas is a happy time for some. For others, not so much. For her part, Gladys Cratchit (Joan Mankin), the long-suffering wife of Bob (Keith Burkland) — that misty-eyed mistletoe of a man harried six days a week by his grasping gargoyle of an employer, Ebenezer Scrooge (Victor Talmadge) — is ready to throw herself off London Bridge. One sees her point. The titular hero of Christopher Durang's freewheeling send-up of the Charles Dickens yuletide favorite suffers unabashedly in the face of her destitute family's unremitting Christmas cheer, sending a refreshing blast of cold air against the warm, Fezziwiggian fuzziness that tends to smother reason in its crib this time of year. And no one, of course, is more smitten by her "bad attitude" than Scrooge.

That a wintry romance should blossom between the suicidal Mrs. Cratchit and the unrepentant Scrooge remains one of the more endearing and pointed aspects of Durang's boisterous but uneven 2002 comedy, which is receiving a nevertheless solid Bay Area premiere at SF Playhouse with director Joy Carlin's well-cast, sharply designed production. If it's hardly a match made in heaven, let alone in Dickens, in Durang's hands it has the feel of genuine inspiration. Played with captivating finesse and expert comic timing, Scrooge and Gladys become the only substantial characters in a fast and furious spoof driven by the playwright's trademark high-octane zaniness and careening pop culture parody — a formula that, in dramatic terms, doesn't promise to take us very far.

But Scrooge and, especially, Gladys, as a slightly more shaded if shady pair of Noel naysayers, do nicely focus the playwright's real-world indignation at an age of greed surpassing what even Dickens could have imagined (and one in which, ironically, A Christmas Carol gets all too easily folded into the general hucksterism and shallow cheerleading of the holiday season).

A single spirit of African American descent (played ingratiatingly by the bubbly Cathleen Riddley) suffices to represent past, present, and future for Scrooge, as well as a certain cross-cultural and anachronistic quality in the play as a whole — a quality underscored by the ghost's penchant for Billie Holiday numbers and her reliance on a little electric ray gun whenever fear and moral suasion fail to stir Scrooge into cooperating with their ethereal outing.

Tasering Scrooge proves increasingly necessary, it turns out, after the Ghost accidentally strands them at various unscheduled stops. In Durang's version of Dickens's moral-laden ghost story, even the Ghost starts to lose the sense of the story's purported meaning, as the attempt to teach Scrooge a valuable lesson in brotherly love devolves into a parodic free-for-all jumbling A Christmas Carol with Frank Capra's It a Wonderful Life, O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," and one or two other hoary classics.

Durang's humor comes rapid-fire and is decidedly hit-and-miss. And while the Cratchit family rendition of "Silent Night" — drawn out to an excruciatingly slow tempo that has even Scrooge contemputf8g suicide — is a hilarious highlight, the original tunes scattered throughout are only so-so. The more consistent pleasure comes from fine and committed performances by such pros as Mankin, Talmadge, and Burkland, as well as some excellent supporting work from the rest of the cast, including the spot-on Lizzie Calogero as a proudly pathetic Tiny Tim.

As Durang's comedy suggests through sometimes gritted teeth, there's something to recommend a contemporary perspective on the world of Dickens's old holiday story. It's also high time, to Durang's way of thinking, that we acknowledge the obvious: Scrooge won.

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