A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS
at the Annoyance Theatre
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Synergy Theatre Company
In a preface to The American Dream, Edward Albee describes his play as "an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen." This description could also be applied to Metraform's production of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which at first seems a loving homage to the perennial Peanuts holiday special--itself a mild if somewhat hypocritical attack on the substitution of artificial for real values--but quickly becomes something else altogether.
In translating the Peanuts TV special to the stage, director Tony Stavish employs the same technique fellow Metraform members Jill and Faith Soloway used to create their cult hit The Real Live Brady Bunch, currently playing in New York: you just appropriate the program, performing it verbatim onstage. The Soloway sisters were content to win laughs by re-creating the look, feel, and aura of The Brady Bunch--a re-creation best illustrated by Becky Thyre's uncanny impersonation of Marcia Brady--but Stavish is after bigger game. This production simultaneously plays on our nostalgia for the ultimate 60s Christmas special even as it deconstructs it, exploring the various ways the show manipulates its audience, satisfying the contradictory goals of attracting advertisers and attacking the commercialization of Christmas.
Whether Stavish and company are entirely conscious of how much their production subverts the intent of the original is hard to say. Certainly they must be aware that just taking a cartoon special and performing it live transforms it--after all, last year Stavish directed Metraform's How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And they must also know that most of the humor in this very funny show doesn't come from Charles Schulz's worn material but from their impersonations of the Peanuts characters.
The cast has every nuance and gesture down cold--even Charlie Brown's odd way of holding his arms out when he talks and the silly, eccentric, inefficient way all the Peanuts characters shuffle and bobble as they walk. In one of the funniest scenes in the show, the whole gang bobbles down the aisle in hot pursuit of Charlie Brown and Linus. It would take the average person three seconds at most to walk from the stage to the door of the theater, but thanks to their penguinlike gait, it takes them a hilarious 30 seconds to travel half the distance.
This is not to say that Stavis and company are after picture-perfect imitations. In fact, all of the characters' personalities are heightened just enough to reveal that what Schulz clearly thinks are charming quirks are actually major character flaws. Matt Walsh's Charlie Brown is not merely sad, he's seriously depressed; Kate Flannery's Lucy is not a fussbudget but a young Leona Helmsley; Jodi Lennon's Frieda is not merely happy with her hair but a screaming narcissist. The more we get to know the characters, the less likely the show's feel-good ending seems.
Inevitably the most believable moments come when a character reveals his or her less admirable traits. In a moment of self-pity Charlie Brown groans, "I know no one likes me--why do we need a holiday season to emphasize it?" After composing her note to Santa, Sally shouts, "All I want is what I have coming to me! All I want is my fair share!" If the actors weren't such gifted comedians, this show could be a real downer. The fact that it's so funny speaks volumes both about the tight ensemble (most of whom have been improvising together since the summer of '90 in Metraform's Pup Tent Theatre, the energetic, playful first half of the evening that also includes A Charlie Brown Christmas) and the power of comedy to transform the darker side of the human condition into pure, from-the-gut laughter.
Director Robert Bouwman achieves a similar magic in his production of Edward Albee's absurdist attack on the bankrupt values of the American family, The American Dream. Stealing a few tricks from Eugene Ionesco, Albee presents us with 90 minutes in the aimless lives of Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma, the surviving members of a superficial, dysfunctional upper-middle-class family. Mommy and Daddy spend most of their time making intentionally cliche-ridden conversation in which Mommy cuts down her husband and Daddy reveals how little he really listens to his wife.
Albee clearly meant the play as a comment on American society: note the title and the hand-tipping introduction quoted above. But his picture of the various ways Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma wound each other is so detailed and specific (anticipating the psychological acuity of his later play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that psychology wins out over sociology.
Bouwman's decision to set the play in 2025 AD proves to be a wise one. It frees him from the responsibility of finding Albee's nonexistent social message and gives costume designer Shawn Martin a nice excuse for creating some wild futuristic outfits, as absurd and pointedly pointless as the play's dialogue.
Some may find Bouwman's take on Albee a little too broad and obvious; he spices up the script with some physical bits with golf balls Albee clearly never anticipated, and P.K. Doyle as Grandma tries just a little too hard to be cute. But any company that can wring laughter from an absurdist play without denying its essential cruelty and nihilism has my admiration.