PASSAGE THROUGH CHRISTMAS
A dash of bitters can make the sweet, gooey sentiments of the Christmas season almost palatable, as Passage Through Christmas demonstrates.
Bitterness--just a touch of it--is the secret ingredient that transforms this concoction of songs, stories, and poems into a holiday treat that adults can savor. The flavors are deftly balanced. Sure, there's "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry, but there's also a splendid diatribe about the sanctioned "graft" and "bunkum" of Christmas. Watching Hans Christian Andersen's little match girl freeze to death again isn't so bad when it's followed by a Damon Runyon story about "Dancing Dan's Christmas." And after listening to "We Really Hate Christmas," which the program identifies as a "traditional" song, I was braced for Mark Twain's "Letter From Santa Claus" and a solo rendition of "Greensleeves."
The Passage Theatre developed this show in 1983, under the direction of Scott Guy, and except for last year, the ensemble has performed it every Christmas season since. Guy has increased the bitters in this year's version by including "No Miracles for Christmas," his own satire of a typical mawkish tale. (It's sort of a combination of Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen, with an O. Henry ending imposed by a disgruntled cast member who won't accept the sad ending that the title promises.)
Guy has also added a condensed version of John Cheever's short story "Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor." (It's about an elevator operator, played with a wonderful streetwise grin by John Graham, who whines so effectively about being alone at Christmas that the residents of the fashionable New York apartment building where he works ply him with food, drink, and presents.)
But perhaps the most brilliant addition to this year's version of Passage is the Damon Runyon story (which could serve as a clever parody of David Mamet's dialogue). Dancing Dan is a classy guy who has danced a few times too many with the girlfriend of a local mobster. While at a speakeasy, Dan gets drunk and decides to play Santa Claus. He takes the costume off a drunken Santa who has collapsed on a table, and sets off to stuff an astonishing gift into the Christmas stocking of the girlfriend's aged grandmother. As Dancing Dan, Ron Jenkins conveys a goofy dignity that is just right for this Runyonesque character, and Graham, as a mobster, does a wonderful cornball imitation of Marlon Brando.
I don't want to give the impression that Passage Through Christmas is some sort of revisionist look at the holidays. This is, ultimately, an attempt to get people into the holiday spirit. The men--Graham, Jenkins, Jimmy Hallett, and Joe Gaines--all wear tuxedos, and perform with the restraint and dignity befitting their attire. The women--Penny Slusher, Judith West, Jan Hyland, and Margaret Scott--wear modest velvet dresses and perform with relentless good cheer.
But Guy's selections generate a rumble of discontent that only an adult can appreciate. For example, there's W.H. Auden's bittersweet poem, "Well, so That Is That," which includes this rueful explanation of postholiday letdown:
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility . . .
And there's a wistful meditation by essayist Loudon Wainright about the failure, especially apparent during the holidays, to make contact with each other: "I always hope that this year the magic will not pall," he says, but it always does, which makes Christmas, for him, "an annual crisis of love."
Even the title of this show, come to think of it, suggests a certain weariness and travail. "Passage"--for me anyway--connotes a long, arduous trip; and this is not a passage to Christmas, it's a passage through Christmas. Mere survival sounds like the goal.
At any rate, this is a Christmas show for adults. In fact, the Passage Theatre has created a separate children's version, directed by Bill Burnett, that is being coproduced with the Pegasus Players.
You might think of these shows as two separate punch bowls at a holiday party--one full of sweet pink stuff for the kids, and the other spiked with something more substantial, to help the adults make it through the hype.