The problem with Ebenezer Scrooge is not that he’s selfish or wrong-headed – he’s right about Christmas, and you know it – it’s that he’s lonely. Scrooge is as miserly toward himself as he is toward others; to the bottom of his stingy heart, he is an enemy of pleasure, whether it be the love of a family or the heat of a few extra burning coals.
He goes through a journey of reflection, in which he discovers that he had overlooked a world of joy, and that in death he will not be righteous and fearsome, but only ridiculous. He also discovers that redemption is always possible, and that hope is a renewable resource. It is a message which hits home for us, and as a result A Christmas Carol is performed everywhere at Christmastime, and will be till the end of time.
The stakes in Carol’s Christmas are not as high. In it, Carol (Karen Lange) is so unwound by the failure of her marriage to Wayne (Jack Powers), a bully of the Neil LaBute variety, that she is unable to leave her tiny Manhattan apartment. Carol is cut off from society, but we see that she is not alienated in the Scrooge sense: the book “Funny Bunnies” rests on her bedtable in Chris Holland’s careful set, and her bookshelves are festooned with pictures of her family.
She has just celebrated her 35th birthday with a sizeable party in her studio apartment, and as we open, her best friend Lauren (Allyson Harkey) is pleading for her to leave her crib for some Christmas Eve partying. Thus Carol’s alienation, unlike Scrooge’s, seems safely temporary at the outset, and the suspense is in finding out how, not whether, things will work out.
Carol gets her instructions in the Christmas Carol manner: through dreams and visitations from Christmas romances past, present, and yet to be. Her manically cheerful sister Marley (Robin Covington), who, with her happy marriage and two children, has what Carol wants, appears in paper cutout chains and a macaroni necklace, doubtlessly crafted by her young kids. She ushers in the ghost of romance past – Carol’s pleasant high school sweetheart Adam (Christopher Herring), who exchanges banalities with Carol until he leaves in favor of the decidedly unpleasant Wayne, her recently departed spouse. Carol and dream-Wayne have a knockdown battle which – well, let’s just say the resolution is not shocking. The visit to romance yet to be is shocking, and amusing; Carol gets a relationship, though it may not be the one she had in mind.
So will Carol’s Christmas be performed in perpetuity, like its Dickensian antecedent? I wish I could say yes, but I cannot. The fine actor Marni Penning has worked long and hard on this script, as evidenced by its first reading in 2006 at Woolly Mammoth and its subsequent development through the LA Writers’ Center. It seems churlish to suggest that more work is required, but I do, for the following reason:
The late, great writing teacher Gary Prevost once said, “Writing isn’t life. It’s life’s greatest hits.” Penning’s dialogue is full of life, and not in a good way. “Marley told me I was dreaming” Carol says at one point, and dream-Adam replies. “Marley was here?” Carol says “Yeah, kicking my ass, as usual,” to which Adam says “How’s she doing?” Carol’s response: “God, I think…She and Tom are good. Casey’s five now. Did you know about Brendan?” The entire encounter between Adam and Carol is draped with dialogue like this, reciting the quotidian events of their lives, many of which (as in the example) we know already and none of them having much bearing on the outcome of the play. We wait to learn the purpose of Adam’s visit; when it comes, it is merely to utter a cliché, which has not been justified by the events to that point.
To a lesser extent, Carol’s dialogue with Marley is similarly afflicted with unproductive chat; Marley, unlike Adam, has a point – to set the dream in motion – but their encounter contains an excess of sisterly conversation inappropriate for the dread purpose of Marley’s appearance.
I realize that some of the charm of the play is that it takes the high drama of the Dickens story and restates it in the context of our ordinary lives. But too much ordinariness defeats the purpose of going to the theater; we will get enough mundane conversation when we go to our own holiday parties.
Things shift into higher gear once the dream-image of Wayne appears; he and Carol start lobbing the verbal napalm at each other, and the room gets considerably warmer. This is not exactly a LaButian or Albeean battle royale, but each side draws a satisfying amount of blood, and we learn some less-than-ennobling things about Carol. Eventually Carol learns what she needs to learn (Christmas plays are permitted to be didactic) and we move into the wild Christmas romance yet to be, about which I will tell you nothing.
The problem, as I see it, is that Penning has welded her story onto the framework of the Dickens story, and it doesn’t work. Dickens’ story, and all of the plays I have seen derived from it, wastes no words; every line is designed to achieve a specific effect, and not a word is uttered unless it is a distinct improvement on silence. (The three ghosts, for example, are mostly silent, and the ghost of Christmas yet to be completely so.) But I can see little purpose for Marley or Adam in Penning’s play, charming though Covington and Herring are in their roles. In Dickens’ story, Marley comes back from the dead, but in Penning’s, she is merely snoozing away in Arlington. In Dickens’ story, the ghost of Christmas Past illuminates Scrooge’s fatal choice to reject love for money, but in Penning’s, Carol and Adam simply have a typical teenage romance which surrenders to entropy as they move apart.
Like Scrooge himself, Carol’s Christmas has qualities worth redeeming, and Pinky Swear’s good production shows them in high relief. Amusingly, as Carol moans out the details of her blighted romantic life to Lauren, Penning has the characters appear on stage to act them out, and it is director Toni Rae Brotons’ inspired choice to have the part of the other woman played by Herring, a tall guy in drag. The actors clearly understand the people they are playing, and Powers in particular is everything he needs to be. Brotons moves her cast crisply around Theater on the Run’s tiny stage, and the funny lines and effects, when they come, resonate cleanly.
Penning has a funny concept – a young woman haunted by the ghosts of romances past, present, and yet to be. She has the kernel of a funny and touching play. Unfortunately, they are two different enterprises. I hope I will someday see one of them done to completion.
By Marni Penning
Directed by Toni Rae Brotons
Produced by Pinky Swear Productions
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, including one intermission