Arts Listings

‘Wild Christmas Binge’ at SF Playhouse

By Ken Bullock , Special to the Planet
Friday December 07, 2007

In Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge, directed by Berkeley favorite Joy Carlin at the San Francisco Playhouse off Union Square, what at first flush seems to be a loopy burlesque of that seasonal chestnut, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, proves postmodern. 

As an unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge (Victor Talmadge) is led up a few blind alleys by a genial but confused all-purpose ghost guide in UPS browns (Cathleen Riddley), the familiar tale jumps the storyline tracks, muddling vignettes from other Dickens morality tales with a morphed slab of O. Henry thrown in, eventually fusing with a handoff riff from cinema—to wit, It’s a Wonderful Life, as fumbled by an even more mixed-up downy winged angel (Brian Degan Scott)—and finally crash lands in the NYC tabloids of the Reagan Era, “when Being Filthy Rich became acceptable, and a ‘virtue.’”  

What playwright Christopher Durang came up with in this ’80s take (now in its San Francisco premiere) is less an antidote to the heartwarming tale of redemption through memory awakening compassion that’s cranked up every year than a kind of dramatic version of Jeb Stuart’s Ride around the hymn-singing Army of the Potomac (or maybe it’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), skirting the edges of a whole slew of the kind of holiday routines and antics that either warm the cockles of kind hearts—or drive the rest of us up the wall. 

At the dark heart of the matter is that accomplished comic performer Joan Mankin playing the title role, a no-nonsense realist trapped in a cheerfully downtrodden family—with a crippled and grinning Tiny Tim (Lizzie Calogero), sweatshop toiling L’il Nell (Jean Forsman), dozens more squalling kids in the root cellar, and a happily masochistic Mr. Cratchit (Keith Burkland) bringing home yet another foundling to swell the squalid menagerie.  

All poor Mrs. Cratchit wants to do is adjourn to a pub for a tequila and then jump off London Bridge. In the meantime, she’s tormented by the treacliest of holiday cheer, including an agonizingly slow rendition of “Silent Night,” constant one-upmanship in gleeful poor-mouthing, and a painful table-side sawing of a Christmas swan, captured at a pond with burlap bag by Child #2, Berkeley’s Gideon Lazarus. 

Mrs. C. also hears voices—those of the UPS-uniformed ghost and an admiring Scrooge, who senses a kindred spirit, as the manic festivities of the Victorian gutter swirl around her. 

Clearly, its anachronism runneth over. Even at the start, the Ghost (who really just wants to croon a Billie Holiday standard) exclaims she’s glad to be a childless phantom, shouting at young Ebenezer (Gideon Lazarus again) that she’d like to take a strap to him—then turning to the audience with, “but you politically correct types wouldn’t like that.”  

It’s a good escape for those who blanch at canned carols in shopping malls and the digital jingle of all those bells. There’s enough crutch-kicking to please any Grinch, though the hilarious audience of concierges yelped when a present in giftwrap got stomped. 

Terry Rucker’s musical direction moves the show along with a goofy repertoire at a good clip. Carlin, who teamed up well with Mankin in the Aurora’s recent production of a more “serious” NYC dark comedy of the ’70s, BOSOMS AND NEGLECT, has put her quick-change cast of a dozen through the hoops perfectly, skimming the schmaltz off the milk of human error in this silly burlesque turn that cries out, Ho Ho Ho Humbug!