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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Guest Review: ‘Christmas Cards: Letters to Santa’ at Chatham Playhouse

Letter_to_Santa_logo
by Ruth Ross (www.njartsmaven.com)

Image may contain: 1 person, standingIt’s an off year for their biennial holiday production of A Christmas Carol, so the Chatham Community Players have reprised their 2013 offering, Christmas Cards, by G. David Post. While I didn’t see the original, I am decidedly underwhelmed by the production currently onstage at the black box playhouse on North Passaic Avenue in Chatham.

Subtitled Letters to Santa and featuring a sketch by guest playwright Steven Ruskin, the 2017 version of Christmas Cards suffers from Amy Sellars’ sluggish direction, meandering scripts that often go nowhere and actors who do not project their voices enough to be heard over the rustling of candy wrappers and popcorn consumed by the youngsters in the audience.

The 10 playlets and four letters mostly fall flat, although a few approach charm and humor. Connie Masterson’s droll letter asking Santa (above) for items decorated by a rainbow unicorn (who knew there could be so many?) opens the show with promise. Unfortunately, I can barely recall the other letters except to say that the writers (Andrew Palmieri, Molly Farrell and Aidan English, and Howard Fisher) narrate them with composure and ease.

Image may contain: one or more people and indoorThe opening skit, “A Different Kind of Claus” features a Jewish boy, Marc (Andrew Palmieri, wearing a yarmulke) who approaches a department store Santa (Howard Fischer) with a request that he visit their home (in an old Mercedes instead of the de rigueur sleigh) so his little brother Josh won’t be disappointed. What could have been a charming scene is marred by Post’s invocation of two distasteful stereotypes: Sounding like a slick businessman, Marc tells Santa he should “expand his horizons,” and the old Mercedes reference plays into the idea of the penny-pinching Jew. I found both offensive and inappropriate for a community playhouse filled with families and children at holiday time.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing and indoorThe second sketch, “A String of Pearls,” involves newly married Bill (David Kapferer) who brings a variety of gifts—all deemed inappropriate, according to the mall wrapper Pearl (Maria Brodeur), because of their practicality, color and impersonality. Over four visits, she schools the young man about what to buy a wife to make her feel valued and feminine. The surprise ending is a nice touch; too bad playwright Post used a similar version less effectively in “Todd Bless Ye Merry Gentleman,” starring Prestera and Julie Anne Nolan. In each instance, Nolan plays a daughter/sister who makes a startling discovery; her angry delivery overshadows the poignancy of the situation and derails the endings.

Image may contain: 2 people, outdoor and nature“Stupid Bobby Harris” feels interminable, as three kids (Aidan English, Molly Farrell and Julia Hearne) camp in their yard in hopes of taking a photo of Santa as he visits, repeating the title mantra over and over as they cavort around the stage. “Dear Santa” by Steven Ruskin addresses a similar situation, only this time the kids (with Masterson replacing Farrell) are in their bedroom, ostensibly asleep but jumping up to write letters to St. Nick in between their mother’s opening the door to check on them. The similarity of both playlets dulls their effect.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing and people on stage“Thief of the North Pole” addresses the reason Santa’s sleigh/reindeer can fly by framing it as a crime story involving the Arab Ali (played by a scenery-chewing Prestera) who has come seeking someone called Dolly Ma-kar (a dolly-making elf played by Farrell), who has ostensibly stolen his magic carpet. The resolution of the problem could serve as a good lesson to the current Congress as it tries to craft laws!

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing and nightThe ghostly “The Haunting of Tannenbaum” features George Bailey (Prestera) and Clarence “the Angel” Odbody(Post) watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” as Natalie (Joëlle Bochner (left) and Kelly (Nolan) are visited, respectively, by specters of Mom (Ginny Crooks) and Stan (Kapferer)—one, baking cookies and the other, decorating a small tree. The premise could have been charming, but the action feels endless, and at first, it’s difficult the spooky situations aren’t obvious.

“Really? One of Those?” addresses the introduction of a new pet into a household at Christmastime. The reactions of the animals already residing there (Hearne as the kitty Tinkerbell, Post as Fernando the Chihuahua and Masterson as the new unnamed puppy) are quite comical, but Brodeur’s elegant, snooty cat Sparkle steals the show. Crooks gamely attempts to keep peace among her furry friends.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and nightThe best written (and performed) sketch is “8 Little Angels,” beautifully performed by Bochner (left) with superb timing and an ability to voice various characters. Post provides the onstage sound effects in this standout performance.

However, the final playlet, “The Three Christmas Witshes,” drags on and on as three crones, reminiscent of those in Macbeth, attempt to steal a letter sent to the post office for delivery to the North Pole. The point of the plot is completely lost on me; all I can recall is 12 actors talking over each other and witches sinuously moving around the stage.

Because their productions are uneven and often involve folks with very little to no previous acting experience, I hesitate to review community theaters, but for the past 21 years, the Chatham Community Players has been at the top of my list. I have been consistently impressed by their professionalism and, since the 2009-2010 season, the expansion of their dramatic vision by producing more modern, edgy dramas, like Pillowman and Angels in America. And during the same period, I have seen myriad productions of A Christmas Carol, which never gets old.

However, on a dramatic level, this production of Christmas Cards: A Letter to Santa disappoints. Oh, the child actors are cute and work very hard (as do several adult actors), but the material is thin and not really worthy of this usually fine troupe. Post (and Ruskin) strive mightily to capture the flavor of the season, but some editing for repetition and tightening of the scripts would serve the production well.

Christmas Cards: A Letter to Santa will be performed through December 16 at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.

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