A Merry Holiday Tradition: A Review of Christmas on the Rocks

By Brooks Appelbaum, Special to the Shoreline Times

“Merry Christmas” has become the most popular way to wish one another well during this holiday season, but “merry” also means addled, fuddled, lit, loaded, and tipsy. TheaterWorks’ production of Christmas on the Rocks, which takes place in a seedy bar, plays from now until December 23, and merry theatergoers -- whether actually intoxicated or not -- can enjoy top-flight acting in seven short plays ranging from tenderly sweet to outright (some might say overly) outrageous. The nice part of the entertainment is that if one scene doesn’t strike you as funny, in just a few minutes someone entirely different will walk through the bar’s door.

Christmas on the Rocks, which TheaterWorks first presented in 2013 (this is its third year, with one new, and terrific, cast member), was conceived and is directed by Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero. Ruggiero has shaped the evening with a smart sense of dramaturgy: perhaps only after one leaves this bubbly diversion does one realize the pleasing contrast of moods from scene to scene, and the well-crafted arc of the whole.

The concept is simple and clever: each Christmas parody, written by a different, well-known playwright, asks the question, “What would happen if one of the children from a famous holiday story or film, washed up at a bar on Christmas Eve as an adult?” Well, we in the audience, and the patient bartender (played with gorgeous understatement by Ronn Carroll) hear some cynical stories and some wild tales. Ruggiero sees to it that the scenes hit their notes perfectly, and the best reason to see Christmas on the Rocks is the cast.¬†Ronn Carroll has been behind the bar since the show’s debut. This year, the terrific Jenn Harris returns, and an astonishing Matthew Wilkas joins the cast for the first -- and I hope not last -- time. If you have already seen Christmas on the Rocks, Wilkas -- a charismatic shape-shifter -- is reason enough to see it again.

Part of the evening’s fun is recognizing each child-turned-adult, so I’ll refrain from listing the characters you will meet. Trust me, though: you’ll know them, despite their altered appearance and circumstances. Of the seven scenes, two are wildly zany, and the other four -- by such playwrights as John Cariani, Jonathan Tolins, Theresa Rebeck, and Jacques Lamarre -- have a more wistful touch. No matter which you prefer, though, the acting will mesmerize you.

Carroll has the least colorful role, since he plays only one part, but watch him listen, watch him react, and pay attention to his timing, comic and otherwise. His work transcends the idea of “acting,” since even in this broad show he remains firmly, absolutely authentic. Jenn Harris’s transformations, aided by Alejo Vietti’s terrific costumes and Mark Adam Rampmeyer’s wigs, demonstrate her remarkable skill. She’s great fun to when she’s playing over the top, and in other scenes she’s poignant and believable.

Matthew Wilkas comes across as a force of nature: his acting conveys the kind of joy in being onstage that captivates an audience; his fun is infectious no matter what he is playing. The more realistic characters are warm and touching, and in at least one incarnation, his moves rival any gymnast or dancer around. Apparently, although we don’t hear enough of his singing, he can croon like a Christmas angel as well. I hope to see him again at TheaterWorks and elsewhere in Connecticut.

Happily, we can all see Harris and Wilkas starring opposite one another in a hit indie film, Gayby; and I, for one, will be watching the film soon. These are two performers to follow.

Michael Schweikardt has created another one of his impeccable sets; we feel that we’ve either been in this cozy, run-down bar many times or should find one like it on a snowy winter’s night. And John Lasiter’s lighting, in addition to being spot-on, creates a few nicely surprising moments. Ruggiero is wise to keep the sound (Michael Miceli) and the lighting subtle; he knows that these three actors light up the stage and in that way make the show.

“Christmas on the Rocks” runs through December 23. For tickets contact TheaterWorks by phone at 860-527-7838 and for more information visit http://theaterworkshartford.org


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