For those of us who grew up in homes that celebrated Christmas, there are a variety of indelible memories that we associate with the holidays, both good and potentially bad. If you’ve ever wondered how those memories, particularly the traumatic ones, impacted some of our favorite characters in classic Christmas stories once they grew older, Hartford’s Theaterworks’ current production may just address some of those questions.
Theaterworks’ Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero asked seven playwrights to each write a short play that updates the stories of some of these characters, to fill us in on what’s happened to them following the end of the fable, the story, the film or the television program, as they face adulthood and in some cases middle age. He also had the notion of setting the evening in a bar on Christmas Eve, located per the program “in a lonely corner of the cosmos.” This, of course, led to the overall title “Christmas on the Rocks,” which considering the emotional states of many of the characters we encounter is ironically appropriate.
So, to find out what happened to the likes of Hermie the Elf from the TV special “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” or Tiny Tim from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” then you’ll no doubt enjoy this special holiday offering at Theaterworks. Each short play is essentially a comedy, but most have their own touching moments as well, as the particular character gains some new perspective or realization about their childhood Christmas experience.
Ruggiero, who also directs the entire evening, has assembled a cast of three nimble actors who are more than up to the challenges of the multiple scripts. Harry Bouvy, who has previously appeared at Theaterworks in several plays including the one-person “Fully Committed,” plays all of the male characters visiting the bar, while New York theater veteran, Sirius XM Radio Broadway channel host and renown celebrity impressionist Christine Pedi plays all of the grown-up woman. Ronn Carroll, a veteran of over 20 Broadway shows and 500 commercials, plays the unnamed bartender who appears in all seven of the plays.
It’s easy to see why Bouvy and Pedi were attracted to this work. The seven playwrights provide delightful opportunities for the actors to play grown-up and somewhat outsized versions of their familiar counterparts, whether it be Bouvy’s sympathetic take on the hilarious toll that his childhood Christmases have taken on the much-beleaguered Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” written by John Cariani (whose “Almost, Maine” was a highlight of last year’s Theaterworks season) or his frantic, over-the-top portrait of Hermie the Elf, who recounts a funny, no-holds barred tale of rivalries and jealousies among Santa’s reindeer and elves written by Jeffrey Hatcher (Theaterworks’ recent “Mrs. Mannerly”).
Bouvy also shines as a grown-up, Cockney-spouting Tiny Tim, who continues to hold deep resentment for Ebenezer Scrooge despite the old man’s conversion and redemption, in Theresa Rebeck’s (“Bad Dates” at Hartford Stage) update on the beloved Dickens’ holiday standard. He returns in the evening’s final short play, “Merry Christmas, Blockhead,” by Hartford’s own Jacques Lamarre, which reveals Peanuts’ headliner, Charlie Brown’s, continued malaise as various characters from his childhood continue to dominate or depress him until a special someone from his past unexpectedly walks into the bar.
Pedi has an equally good time with her characters as well. She’s seen first as a Type A realtor whose take no prisoners attitude toward everyone in her life belies a long-repressed yearning for a reassuring gentle old man who once granted her special wishes in Jonathan Tolins’ speculation on what happened to the young girl in “Miracle on 34th Street.” In Wethersfield native Matthew Lombardo’s original take on “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” Pedi shines in an over-wrought monologue about Cindy Lou Who’s subsequent up and down relationship with the Big Green Creature, whose cave she attempts to transform into a domestic haven to varying degrees of success and appreciation. She gets to be a little more physical as a now adult and desperate Clara from the well-known ballet classic, “The Nutcracker,” faces the truth about her home situation with her peanut loving Prince of a husband, in Eddie Sanchez’s “Still Nuts About Him.”
Bouvy’s and Pedi’s ability to create different characters, with differing voices, accents and behavior, is impressive and one of the genuine delights of the 95-minute, intermissionless production. It is especially nice to see Pedi make her Hartford debut, after having heard about her reputation as an indomitable performer in the various incarnations of “Forbidden Broadway” and her well-received cabaret shows.
Providing essential support for each of these characters is Ronn Carroll’s bartender, who appears in all of the works. His amiable presence serves him well as an understanding, hard-working business owner who finds himself required to listen to his customers’ stories and tribulations on this particular Christmas Eve. While he is sympathetic and helpful to most, some of the more outrageous visitors can indeed try his patience, allowing him to dispense some painful yet warranted advice as, say, he does in the case of Tiny Tim or Charlie Brown.
Equally impressive is just how ingenious each of the playwrights’ inventions are and how well they work as short plays. Ruggiero is to be saluted for this concept and his troupe of playwrights for coming up with such creative stories. Part of the fun is how the playwrights selectively dole out the information about each character (well, except for Hatcher’s Hermie) so that the audience is left guessing for a few moments about just who this person is supposed to be. Of course, Alejo Vietta’s clever costumes provide some trademark clues, whether it be Clara’s white shirt and blue bow or Charlie Brown’s orange squiggle sweater. Her outfits for Hermie and Tiny Tim harken back to the original source of the story, and several of the outfits are enhanced by Brittany Hartman’s wigs, which capture Hermie’s unique hairstyle or Clara’s formerly adolescent tresses.
Set designer Michael Schweikardt provides a compact comfortable bar setting, much more attractive than some of the rude comments the bartender must bear from a few of his visitors who compare it to a dive. And there are a few subtle nods to the stories that shall be revisited during the play, such as a cane and a 19th century crutch just behind the bar and a lamp made out of a woman’s leg on the bar.
It’s great to see theaters becoming more creative and innovative with their Christmas season offerings. A steady diet of the same types of shows, while drawing in the patrons, can quickly cause veteran audiences to lose interest. I like the approach that Ruggiero has taken and know that there are already some playwrights interested in adding to this collection, so that perhaps a “Christmas on the Rocks II” is not a far off possibility.
“Christmas on the Rocks” runs through December 22 at Hartford’s Theaterworks. For information and tickets, call the theater at 860.527.7838 or visit their website at www.theaterworkshartford.org
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