Story: It’s the holiday season, and an assortment of relatives and friends gather at the comfy, suburban English home of Neville and Belinda Bunker for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Neville’s tipsy sister Phyllis is there along with her husband Bernard, a plodding physician who insists each year on performing a puppet show to the boredom of the children and adults alike. There’s also Phyllis’ and Neville’s Uncle Harvey, a retired security officer with a penchant for absorbing himself in bloody flicks being shown on the telly.
Neville’s friend and former employee Eddie is staying, too, along with his pregnant wife Pattie and their three children, who remain unseen upstairs along with the Bunker offspring. Completing the gathering are Belinda’s high-strung and single sister, Rachel, and a young writer named Clive whom she has somewhat desperately befriended.
With retail businessman Neville oblivious to Belinda, Eddie diffident and boorish to Pattie and Phyllis hitting the sauce all too frequently, it’s a recipe for unhappiness rather than holiday cheer until Clive’s arrival stirs the passions of Belinda and Phyllis, setting in motion some most unfortunate occurrences.
Highlights: Prolific English playwright Alan Ayckbourn has penned dozens of plays since his first effort, The Square Cat, in 1959. His incisive wit draws laughs for the quirkiness of his characters as well as bringing flinches of recognition for their foibles.
Season’s Greetings, which premiered in 1980, offers a familiar and often entertaining look at dysfunctional people struggling through the forced cheer and good will of their own particular holiday celebration. Thanks to the collective talents of her hard-working cast, director Elizabeth Helman wraps a festive bow on this yuletide treat for the enjoyment of its patrons.
Other Info: Helman elicits a truly ensemble effort from her players, all of whom contribute to the comic chaos that ensues on stage. That isn’t easy, either, considering the logistics of parading nine performers across the cozy Gaslight Theater space. What’s equally impressive is the depth and dimension perceived in Christie Johnston’s set design, which somehow incorporates a dining room, living room and stairs leading to (unseen) upstairs bedrooms as well as doors to the kitchen and outside. It’s a model of handsome efficiency.
Throw in the amusing knickknacks collected by props designer Lisa Beke, including wooden pieces and a stage for Bernard’s hopelessly bad puppet show, and you have the makings of an amusing night’s entertainment. Robin Weatherall contributes some holiday merriment, ironic and otherwise, with his sound design and Jonathan Zelezniak’s lighting adds a lively dash to the Christmas tree. Costumes by Jennifer ‘JC’ Krajicek are accentuated by the equally frumpy wardrobes of irascible Uncle Harvey and the romantic catastrophe better known as Rachel.
Performance highlights are abundant, enhancing the evening’s enjoyment percentage. Phillip Bozich blusters and frets amusingly over his tipsy wife, Uncle Harvey’s bloodthirsty ways or the care and devotion to his interminably awful puppets, while Teresa Doggett displays her savvy skills with physical comedy as the mischievously inebriated and kitchen-clueless Phyllis.
Jason Grubbe is a stitch to watch as insular Uncle Harvey, whose primary task seems to be selecting the TV viewing menu as well as supplying the kids with assorted guns and knives for their destructive pleasure. Rachel Hanks is painfully effective as klutzy Rachel, well aware of her deficiencies in appealing to the opposite sex.
Emily Baker and Eric Dean White make for a handsome and incompatible couple as Belinda and Neville, with Baker dropping boulder-sized hints about Neville’s holiday responsibilities and then displaying her comic flair in a brazen grasp for the attractive Clive in a midnight tryst that goes terribly wrong thanks to some mechanical toys. White seems completely impervious to everything around him until he coolly and casually describes to Clive what he’d do if he thought that the guest had been sober when pursuing Neville’s wife.
Tom Lehmann and Wendy Greenwood smoothly present both sides of the unhappy marriage of Eddie and Pattie, with Greenwood shining in a poignant moment with Belinda as she laments another impending birth. As Clive, Stephen Peirick works hard to show Clive’s status as a visiting celebrity, albeit the author of one modest and rather unsuccessful book, but he’s saddled with some awkward dialogue insisting on his sober nature at a point where it obviously makes sense to literally take the fifth.
Helman wrestles with some awkward pacing between scene changes on the minuscule stage. She also has to deal with transitions from one room to another with only a half-wall separating dining room from living room, as players too often look a bit lost when not at the center of the action.
Still, there’s enough merriment in the players’ interpretations of Ayckbourn’s stylish writing that makes Season’s Greetings a nifty holiday gift.
Play: Season’s Greetings
Group: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: December 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 16
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb