If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

Snarky Holiday Tales on the Menu at TheaterWorks

Leave it to the plucky TheaterWorks in Hartford to forgo the tried and true for the holidays and continue with their own original contribution. No “Christmas Carol” or “Nutcracker” retreads for this company. For the fourth consecutive year, TheaterWorks returns with its seasonal offering of “Christmas on the Rocks.” Conceived and directed by Rob Ruggiero and comprised of seven short plays by various authors, the concept here is to re-visit familiar holiday characters from classic stories, like “A Christmas Carol” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” who have grown older, if not any wiser or happier. As in any compilation from a variety of authors, there are some plays that are definitely stronger, funnier and more memorable than others. The odds of having a good time at “Christmas on the Rocks”, however, are still quite high.

The show continues to draw strength from its primary cast members, Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, who alternate playlets and bring variety, humor and even some pathos to the characters they play. Veteran Ronn Carroll completes the small company in the role of the avuncular bartender who greets and serves each character as a new play begins.

Top pick of the evening is still “Say It Glows”, a comical gem by Jeffrey Hatcher. Here Wilkas portrays a grown and very tipsy “Hermey”, the elf from “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”. Basically an extended monologue, Wilkas doesn’t miss a comical beat as the outrageous gay dentist dishing the dirt on what really went on behind-the-scenes with Clarice, Rudolph and Yukon Cornelius. Unfortunately, this tale comes relatively early in the show (there is no intermission) and no other play quite matches it for quality or laughs-per-minute.

Jenn Harris, whose best playlet from previous years was “Going Green” by Matthew Lombardo in which she played an unhappy Cindy Lou Who (from “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”), was replaced this year with a new piece, “My Name is KAREN!”. Written by both Harris and Wilkas and starring Harris as the grown up little girl from “Frosty the Snowman”, the actress throws herself into the role of the bipolar Karen who now streams a live talk show around the country bashing her former snowman friend. In many ways it’s the same story the actress tells in Edwin Sanchez’s “Still Nuts About Him” where she plays the bitter Russian ballerina, Clara, from “The Nutcracker”. There’s lots of shouting and hysterics in both with diction and clarity a major casualty, but Harris’ go-for-broke performances must be admired.

The weaker entries in the collection, which include Jonathan Tolins’ bland “The Cane in the Corner” (based on “Miracle on 34th Street”) and Teresa Rebeck’s dour “God Bless Us Every One” (“A Christmas Carol”) don’t distract from the fun, but still seem more like fillers at this point. Jacques Lamarre’s “Merry Christmas, Blockhead” caps the evening and its bittersweet look at an adult Charlie Brown who finds the love of his life on Christmas Eve, remains a warmhearted and often very funny finale. In all, “Christmas on the Rocks” is a fine adult diversion for the holiday season.

“Christmas on the Rocks” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through December 23. For further information call the theatre box office at: 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworks.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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