Kristine Nielsen, the big-eyed character actress who was a crazy exclamation mark in Christopher Durang's Betty's Summer Vacation, is a fed-up Mrs. Bob Cratchit in the world premiere of Durang's holiday sendup, Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge, Nov. 7-Dec. 22 at Pittsburgh's City Theatre.
Nielsen, who won an Obie Award for her performance at Playwrights Horizons as one of several people holed up at a beach house in Betty's Summer Vacation, is joined in Durang's new winter-set play by Doug Rees as Scrooge, January Murelli as The Ghost, and Darren Focareta, Matt Gaydos, Martin Giles, Jeff Howell, Larry John Meyers, Sheila McKenna and Elena Passarello. Kids, typical of stagings of A Christmas Carol, are part of the mix, too: Lauren Gigliotti, Alison Hannon, Shane Jordan and Matt Lang are the moppets.
Durang has taken on Catholic dogma (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It all for You), marriage (The Marriage of Bette and Boo) and parenting (Baby With the Bathwater) in his acidic comedies, and this fall he's poking A Christmas Carol in the eye at City Theatre in Pittsburgh.
The world premiere of Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge is billed as "an outrageous new holiday comedy" directed by City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden. The commission plays on City Theatre's 272-seat mainstage (it was originally announced to run to Dec. 8, but was extended to Dec. 22 prior to the first performance).
An inept ghost tries to shepherd Scrooge through his past, but gets lost along the way. In the meantime, Mrs. Bob Cratchit is fed up with husband Bob's penchant for bringing home foundlings (20 live in the root cellar). Did we mention that Scrooge's ejaculatory "Bah! Humbug!" is actually a result of Tourett's Syndrome? Designers are Jeff Cowie (scenic), Beth Hope Clancy (costume) and Rick Martin (lights). Michael Friedman is composing original music (four new songs, with lyrics by Durang) and Douglas Levine is music director. Scott Wise is movement coach and choreographer.
Dickens characters from the much-adapted short story, "A Christmas Carol," are here: Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, the Fezziwigs and Tiny Tim. But so are Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, and cameos by the Beadle and his wife (from "Oliver Twist"), Little Nell ("The Old Curiosity Shop"), George Bailey and Clarence ("It's a Wonderful Life"), Tess and Monica ("Touched By an Angel"), and others.
"It's pretty much a romp, although I would read a moral of the story," director Brigden told Playbill On-Line. "It's basically, leave people alone. Don't try to change somebody into somebody else...don't try to make everybody good. It's more fun if there are bad people out there."
Brigden, who worked as an artistic associate at Manhattan Theatre Club and ran the new plays initiative at Hartford Stage, said City Theatre has always been committed to new works, but now special grant money from the Pittsburgh Foundation is allowing the company to develop plays in readings and workshops more than before.
It was at MTC, when she was helping to produce short plays by Durang under the title Durang Durang, that Brigden got to know the playwright. After landing the top spot at City Theatre, she said she "thought Christopher Durang writing a holiday play would definitely be irreverent and different" for the holiday slot (although two years of The Santaland Diaries there had also been successful).
Durang's absurdly comic plays have criticized social conventions, hypocrisy, corrupt beliefs and base appetites over the past 25 years. His works include the recent Betty's Summer Vacation, a wickedly funny critique of the public's appetite for sensationalism.
A Christmas Carol is a perennial favorite in American regional theatres. As counter programming to the sweet Victorian morality tale, some theatres have begun staging such works as The Santaland Diaries (David Sedaris' wicked account of playing an elf at Macy's) or Inspecting Carol, a comic tale of a regional theatre troupe staging A Christmas Carol in expectation of an NEA inspector who may or may not approve funding for their company.
To view Playbill On-Line's Brief Encounter interview with Durang, who talks about A Christmas Carol, Dickens and the way he created Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge, click here.
Tickets are $25-$35. Opening night is Oct. 13. City Theatre is at 1300 Bingham and 13th Street, South Side. For tickets, call the box office at (412) 431-CITY or visit citytheatrecompany.org.
— By Kenneth Jones