Christmas on the Rocks – Review by Geary Danihy

Did Charlie Brown ever grow up? And what about Zuzu Bailey, the little girl in “It’s a Wonderful Life”? And what’s with Clara and her dreams of the handsome nutcracker and did Tiny Tim’s life become a bed of roses once Scrooge intervened and how did Ralphie really feel about the bunny pajamas given to him by his aunt? If you’ve lately been pondering these and other questions, the answers await you up at Hartford’s Theaterworks, where “Christmas on the Rocks” is currently running. If you’re already starting to get a certain queasy feeling about candy canes and roasted chestnuts (does anyone still roast chestnuts?), then the medicine you need to take is the 90-minute laugh fest that pokes a finger in the eye of our most cherished holiday stories.

In its fifth iteration, “Christmas on the Rocks,” conceived and directed by Rob Ruggiero, is a “Bah. Humbug” response to the often over-sentimentalized holiday that demands, nay commands that we be of good cheer. The seven skits, written by different playwrights, all suggest that there’s a darker (and hilarious) side to “Merry Christmas.”

The premise is that it’s Christmas Eve and we are in a local bar overseen by a somewhat phlegmatic bartender (Tom Bloom). Business is not brisk – as a matter of fact there’s no one in the bar until the door opens and in walks…well, one after the other, characters from our childhood reappear, albeit somewhat worse for wear and time. The playwrights, and Ruggiero, take great delight in bursting treasured bubbles of holiday memories…and it’s great fun.

Much of the pleasure in basking in the icon-bashing of “Christmas on the Rocks” is watching the two other actors, the marvelous Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, take on diverse roles. Wilkas is called upon to portray Ralphie, who comes out of the closet re. his bunny pajamas, as well as a somewhat depressed Tiny Tim, a henpecked Charlie Brown and, in his most over-the-top role, an aggressively gay elf who has a love-hate relationship with Rudolph and his red nose.

Then there’s Harris who is, quite simply, astounding. Whether she is portraying a bell-haunted Zuzu, a Frosty-hating Karen, a Clara who is having relationship problems with her “nutcracker,” or a red-haired girl who actually had deep feelings for a bald-headed kid, Harris is mesmerizing and totally hilarious (her Russian accent alone is worth the price of admission) and her Karen’s monomaniacal fixation on Frosty is a devilish delight from start to finish.

“Christmas on the Rocks” is a no-holds-barred assault on sentimentality and yet, in the final scene, there’s just a touch of hope for all of us – maybe we will, one day, all get a chance to dance with the red-haired girl, to hold her in our arms.

Kudos to Ruggiero not only for coming up with the idea for this assault on treasured memories but also for direction that is deft and subtle. There are so many fine little moments in the seven scenes that they are too numerous to count. Whether it’s an elf leaping up onto a bar stool or Clara grabbing a vodka bottle out of the bartender’s hand, the blocking and stage business Ruggiero has created make for a rich visual accent to the fine writing of his playwrights. It’s obvious that everyone involved in this production – writers, actors and director – are all on the same page, and it makes for 90 minutes of highly entertaining theater that will, if remembered, help you stand in line at the check-out counter at your local store-in-a-box as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are played over and over and over again.

“Christmas on the Rocks” runs through December 23. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org.

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