With Season's Greetings, estimable and prolific English writer Alan Ayckbourn has created an antidote not only to the usual Christmas saccharine, but also to all of the half-baked, skit-filled attempts to make the holiday hip. The play shows a dysfunctional middle-class family gathering for their annual celebration. These people have no illusions; they've spent too many Christmases together. Belinda and the heavily pregnant Pattie know that their husbands will shun their company in order to spend all their time tinkering with electronics in the tool shed. Everyone accepts that Phyllis will take over the kitchen, alternately fainting, injuring herself and having hysterics, and finally producing an inedible lamb roast. Her husband, Bernard, a sadly incompetent doctor, will stage an interminable puppet show and bore the pants off everyone. Harvey is a retired security guard; he always spends Christmas slumped in his armchair, watching anything violent he can find on TV and delighting in the sadistic gifts he's prepared for all the children and at least one of the adults. The kids are nowhere in sight during Season's Greetings -- they're either sleeping or out taking a walk -- but nobody bothers with wet-eyed plans to provide a magical experience for them. The predominant emotion is dissatisfaction coupled with faint loathing. This Christmas offers a variation on the annual routine, however. Belinda's virginal 38-year-old sister, Rachel, has invited a beau: Clive, a novelist who's just beginning to make a name for himself.
The first act starts slowly, encumbered by the required plot setup. But once it gets going, it's like a speeding train, one anarchic development following another, with each plot device clicking neatly and hilariously into place in the brilliant way of classic farce. If you're not in tears of laughter by intermission, you should probably be at The Nutcracker. Soon after the beginning of the second act, there's an equally inspired bit, though it's less farcical and quivers with just the barest hint of real emotion. Bernard practices his puppet show with the help of a resentful Pattie, snapping at her for not handing him his puppets, props and bits of scenery fast enough -- "Why do you keep giving me the wrong pig?" -- while Harvey goads him and Phyllis offers drunken wifely encouragement.
The play's climax is unexpectedly dark. Season's Greetings occupies a niche somewhere between farce and domestic comedy (many critics have compared Ayckbourn to Neil Simon, but I find both his wit and his ability to structure action sharper), and this abrupt tumble into the blackest of black comedy feels out of place. Where the first act concluded with a raging cascade of bits and jokes, the second ends with one quiet, bitter, anti-climactic line. It belongs to Belinda, who's played very broadly -- always agitated, almost always in movement -- by Kathleen McCall, and a hint of vulnerability would have made both the ending and the entire play work better.
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Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 23, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
The set, by Hugh Landwehr, is festive and funny and makes ingenious use of the cozy Space Theatre, though sightlines are sometimes a problem. The English accents are less than secure, and a couple of the performances are a little weak. Mike Hartman makes a convincingly bluff Harvey, and Henny Russell is funny and periodically touching as the repressed Rachel. The standouts (admittedly, they have the best material) are Charlotte Booker, insanely uninhibited as Phyllis, and Paul Hebron, who inhabits poor Bernard with deflated pomposity.
Although Season's Greetings is not Ayckbourn's best, it's still very funny -- more consistently funny than this Denver Center Theatre Company production makes it seem. Flaws and all, though, I'll take this show over the usual Christmas fare.