Dumbing down for the holidays, Steppenwolf Theatre has delivered a heavy-handed comic Christmas card that Jesse Helms would love: Inspecting Carol portrays theater people as amoral, flaky, left-leaning parasites who scrounge federal dollars because their work isn't good enough to attract a paying audience and depicts the National Endowment for the Arts as an incompetent, wasteful cabal of woolly-headed, star-struck bureaucrats covertly pushing for racial quotas under the guise of cultural diversity. All that's missing is homosexuality--there are no openly gay or lesbian characters whose presence would raise that particular issue, just a couple of smug jokes at homosexuals' expense. This is, after all, a family comedy--a Christmas cash cow very much like the one it attempts to spoof, only with a mean-spirited streak intended to make it seem cutting-edge. Some theaters do go both ways.
Premiered in 1991 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, whose artistic director Daniel Sullivan and resident company share credit for the play's authorship, Inspecting Carol tells of a third-rate regional theater riddled with severe financial and artistic deficits. Facing a 50 percent loss in subscriptions and the cutoff of its NEA grant, the Soapbox Playhouse's "founding members" anxiously rehearse their one reliable income producer: the yearly A Christmas Carol, noted for its traditionalism, sentimentality, and (by the low standards of the unnamed town where the play takes place) flashy special effects.
But on the eve of its 13th annual production, everything in this Christmas turkey is falling apart--including the turkey itself, the one Scrooge is supposed to send to Bob Cratchit. The sets are wobbly, the costumes don't fit, and the 12-year-old Macauley Culkin wannabe who plays Tiny Tim has grown too big for his crutch. The egomaniacal would-be radical playing Scrooge is trying to rewrite the script to emphasize third-world oppression, millennial anxiety, and Tiny Tim's latent homosexuality. The newly hired token black is freaked out because no one will take the time to rehearse him in his roles (he's the ghosts); the British voice coach and her pseudo-English husband are peeved because no one wants to attempt British accents for Dickens's quintessentially English words. The guy playing Cratchit has sciatica, which doesn't make it easy for him to hoist his make-believe son onto his shoulder, and he's hung up on the director, Zorah Bloch, a pressure-prone dominatrix who manages to dress quite stylishly despite her theater's impending bankruptcy--and who is horrified to learn that now, of all times, the company's due for an on-site visit by an NEA inspector. When an untalented, passive-aggressive actor named Wayne Wellacre forces his way into the theater for an audition, Zorah assumes he's the NEA guy in disguise; soon she and her actors are sucking up to him in every way possible, giving him parts he can't play and taking his dumb advice on matters ranging from stage pictures to script revisions.
The premise of Inspecting Carol is pretty funny. The foibles and fixations of theater people--bizarre warm-ups, clashes over dialect, multiple casting, multiculturalism, the onstage tensions arising from offstage romance--are obvious targets, as are the complementary themes of holiday depression and postalimony austerity. The problem is they're too obvious unless handled with extreme finesse--either as manic farce, in the style of Noises Off, or in the drily witty manner of, say, Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval.
Rising nowhere near the level of either of those plays, Inspecting Carol is just situation comedy, and fairly inconsistent sitcom at that. It's at its best when it's most physical--the climactic, inevitable, disastrous run-through of A Christmas Carol, in which everything that can go wrong does, is inescapably funny thanks to the sheer vulgarity with which it trashes a holiday perennial. But the verbal humor that dominates most of the play is only erratically entertaining: promising setups are too often compromised by predictability, lame timing, or cheap-shot crudeness, leaving the audience to laugh at what it was expecting rather than what was actually delivered. Inspecting Carol sacrifices credibility but fails to replace it with absurdity; it settles for easy but unsatisfying silliness, and so falters more often than it flies.
Under Eric Simonson's direction, the 12 cast members aspire to play people rather than cartoon types. Reliable if uninspired work comes from Deanna Dunagan as the distraught Zorah, Jane Lynch as a smart-aleck stage manager, Darryl Alan Reed as Walter, Ann Whitney and Robert Breuler as the Brits (actually, he admits, he's from Cleveland), Gene Weygandt in his patented near-hysteric mode as the theater's managing director, and Austin Pendleton in his patented disheveled-schlemiel mode as Wayne. Their talents almost redeem a comedy whose attempted satire of nonprofit-theater funding is more than a little disingenuous considering its source; no for-profit producer in his right mind would ever mount a mediocrity like this.
BEAUTY AND THE BRIEF
Chicago Bar Association at Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers
Speaking of holiday perennials: the Chicago Bar Association is mounting its 69th annual "Christmas Spirits" show this week, Beauty and the Brief. Written, as usual, by Julian J. Frazin and E. Leonard Rubin, this musical revue makes no apologies for being an amateur effort--it's created and performed by lawyers and their staffs as entertainment for the profession, though anyone may attend (at $85 a head, including dinner--the event's a fund-raiser for the CBA and its charitable efforts). The production has plenty of weak spots, but its high points deserve notice.
Chief among them are Frazin's lyrics: generally clever, if parochial, slams at local and national TV stars and politicians (which may have therapeutic value for the show's core audience, since those two population groups are among the few who rank lower in public esteem than lawyers). The parodies of familiar show and pop tunes betray an attorney's sensibility--more sophistic than sophisticated, they argue both sides of almost every issue--but Frazin has an impressive knack for drawing laughs with his new twists on well-known sources, especially when he has good performers to put them over.
Take Mary J. McNichols's bravura impersonation of Queen Elizabeth, recovering from her annus horribilus with a private binge to the tune of "Cabaret": "Taxes you now must pay, old mum . . . /Time for a Tanqueray." (McNichols's tanklike presence and rafter-raising voice add to the fun.) Or June A. Brown, a bang-up soul singer, as Carol Moseley Braun celebrating her victory: "Ooh, Public Aid said / Somethin' looks funny / Then I said / So here's the money / All I'm askin' / Is for a little respect . . . " Or former corporation counsel James D. Montgomery using his rich baritone to play Jesse Jackson opposite Erica L. Reddick's Sister Souljah on a Nat-and-Natalie-Cole-style duet, warning Bill Clinton: "Unelectable, that's what you'll be . . . / If you keep slighting me."
Mayor Daley and Governor Edgar's run-in over a third airport, Cardinal Bernardin's run-in with the Chicago Tribune, and Dan Quayle's run-in with Murphy Brown are also on the bill (unable to separate real life from TV, Quayle applies for a job on Murphy's news show); so is Woody Allen's date in court with Mia Farrow ("Soon Yi, Soon Yi / That kid's gonna roon me," Woody whines to the tune of "Sue Me," from Guys and Dolls.
So are anxieties about women's and gay rights. "Robert Blah" leads an all-male retreat for LaSalle Street lawyers seeking refuge from ladies in the Union League Club. The once-all-male revue's roots show in a rowdy drag turn by six men as classic TV mothers in the June Cleaver-Harriet Nelson mode who vie for the title of "Mrs. Family Values America" in a beauty pageant hosted by Pat Buchanan. The male performers' discomfort hurts a skit about the fall of discrimination against gays in the armed services--ill-executed sissy stereotypes undercut the irony of Frazin's rewrite of "Come, Boys, Let's All Be Gay, Boys," skewering heroes "who sacrified part of their pension / They went to that Tailhook convention, boys / To prove that Navy pilots are not gay." Considering the profits lawyers stand to make from clients pressing sexual-orientation discrimination suits, the take on this subject is a little surprising. Maybe next year, when "Christmas Spirits" turns 70, it'll have grown up.