Kristine Nielsen, the big-eyed character actress who was a crazy punctuation mark in Christopher Durang's Betty's Summer Vacation, will be 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. 8 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, will be 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.
Designers are Jeff Cowie (scenic), Beth Hope Clancy (costume) and Rick Martin (lights). Michael Friedman is composing original music and Douglas Levine is music director. Scott Wise is movement coach and choreographer.
Durang has taken on Catholic dogma, marriage and parenting 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 runs on City Theatre's 272-seat mainstage.
According to production notes, "In Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge, we find out whether Ebeneezer Scrooge has Tourette's Syndrome, or just a really bad attitude. When we meet Scrooge, he's as 'unpleasant as fermenting Rice-a-Roni.' But soon an omniscient (though somewhat inept) Ghost begins a journey to teach him the True Meaning of Christmas. Since she's lost her astral direction, however, things start to go terribly awry."
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.
"Then there's Gladys Cratchit," according to the announcement. "At the end of her rope about her 20 children who sleep in a pile in the root cellar, she decides to have a few Tequila Sunrises then jump off London Bridge. When she meets Scrooge, however, and discovers they have much in common (both find children to be sticky and hateful), a whole new chapter unfolds."
Among the Durang drollery:
Young carolers sing a deadly dull version of "Silent Night" in which they are encouraged to "sing slower, children — drag it out!" "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 Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Baby With the Bathwater, The Marriage of Bette and Boo and the recent Betty's Summer Vacation.
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.
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