Christmas is not all “fah who for-aze, dah who dor-aze” for grown-up Christmas characters woefully cycling through a bar on Christmas Eve in “Christmas on the Rocks” at TheaterWorks in Hartford.
Someone shoots Ralph’s eye out (“Christmas Story” fans will appreciate this and the leg lamp decor in the bar). Susan (the little girl from “A Miracle on 34th Street” who gets the house she wants from Kris Kringle) becomes a real estate agent. Hermey the Elf launches a vengeful plan against an attention-hogging Rudolph that causes him to lose his glowing red nose. Cindy Lou Who marries the Grinch and snorts cocaine between swigs of hard liquor. Tiny Tim lives, but isn’t keeping Christmas in his heart. Clara goes on a nut-smashing spree after her never-aging nutcracker husband is unfaithful. Charlie Brown’s marriage to psychiatrist Lucy is a football-kicking sham that leaves him just about as depressed as we see him in various “Peanuts” cartoons.
They’re not the happy endings we’d imagine for our beloved yuletide protagonists, but the stories in this bar are served straight up with a twist, pouring raw humanity and bitters into the charming “cocktales” we know and love. It’s relatable. They are the hard truth, which, only in a bar, comes out so easily to strangers.
That’s why Director Rob Ruggiero conceived the concept of the “offbeat collection of twisted holiday tales” set in a bar that gives modern context to why we are hearing these sob stories.
The TheatreWorks original and holiday tradition is in its third year. Ruggiero recruited seven writers – John Cariani, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacques LaMarre, Matthew Lombardo, Theresa Rebeck, Edwin Sánchez and Jonathan Tolins – to each write a vignette. In doing that instead of having one writer for the whole show, it breathes an original voice into each character that keeps each scene distinct and fresh in an “Almost Maine” sort of fashion.
And it’s all done with a three-person cast. Ronn Carroll plays the fatherly, endearing bartender who gives good advice that helps his forlorn customers. Jenn Harris reprises her role for the second year as “the woman,” playing all the female character. She brought on Matthew Wilkas, who she has worked with on other projects like feature film “Gayby,” to take on the male roles in his debut at TheaterWorks. The Bridgeport native mostly does acting in New York and has played the role of Peter Parker/Spiderman on Broadway.
Harris and Wilkas rise to the challenge of uniquely portraying multiple characters.
All of the characters have their sorrows, but Wilkas seems to have the most depressed characters – Ralph, who’s lonely after being separated from his family in the real world, Tiny Tim, who’s lost his optimism, and Charlie Brown, who’s never gotten to kick the football and find true love. But they have a lot of meaningful things to say that make you think.
In contrast, his high-energy, flamboyant Hermey the Elf is a show-stopper and was my favorite character in the show. His no-filter, nonstop chatter – which hilariously continues even when the bartender leaves the room when he can’t stand it – was riddled with poisonous humor and sarcasm that evoked nonstop laughter. Ironically, Wilkas said after the show that this was his least favorite character to play because he was concerned he would offend someone, but it doesn’t show in the most dynamic character in the show.
Another favorite was Cindy Lou Who. Her style spoke the loudest from her green Grinchy scarf and bright pink dress and fishnets to her colorful array of jewelry, wildly curly blonde hair and antennas. The writing for this scene was probably my favorite because the whole scene mirrored Dr. Seuss’s language and rhyming pattern.
The show always keeps you on your feet, not knowing what to expect. The joy of it is piecing together the puzzle in each scene as you try to figure which Christmas legends the characters are. Ruggiero said he’s even thought about mixing up the characters in future years to keep the play fresh.
Harris had some of the more challenging characters to identify. It didn’t click until halfway through her first vignette that she was Susan, the adorable little girl from “Miracle on 34th Street.” Once they started talking about Kris Kringle, the department store and the gift of the house with a cane left behind, I got it and that perhaps made it more meaningful because it was less obvious. Clara from “The Nutcracker” took me a little while until I saw the ballet slippers. Her Russian accent was also a hint before, of course, the nutcracker prop is revealed. Clara’s angry outbursts jab humor through the outrage. Her apparent psychotic break as she smashes nuts all over the bar with a nutcracker leaves a seamless transition into the Charlie Brown scene when the bartender looks at him and merely says, “Peanuts?”
Then, of course, there’s Little Red-Haired Girl, the quiet red-head Charlie Brown admired in the cartoons. While you knew what she was from, it was hard to place her initially. However, she is one of my favorite characters Harris plays because she gives Charlie Brown the beginning of his happy ending. It’s also the only scene Harris and Wilkas have together the whole show. I only wish more of the characters could have interacted.
Harris has a knack for playing many of her characters straight yet you glean their humor even through their seriousness. She had me laughing throughout.
The bartender is the constant that ties all the narratives together, much like the narrator in “Our Town.” Carroll said that the challenge of the bartender was coming up with a believable and consistent personality given each writer wrote the bartender in their own distinct way. He’s played the bartender every year, but the difference is the mix of cast members year to year that affect how he can play off them to make their chemistry fit in each character interaction.
Is he Father Christmas? That’s been a thought over the years as the production’s evolved at TheatreWorks, but that’s an unanswered question that’s left open to interpretation. It’s not overt, but in a subtle way he could be Santa. He gives all the characters gifts on Christmas Eve in the form of friendship, compassion and wisdom. He is all-knowing about the different Christmas story worlds and his advice makes them think and pulls them higher out of their ruts.
When you watch the same Christmas movies every year, you’re sometimes left wondering what happens to your beloved characters after the story is over. “Christmas on the Rocks” is the afterlife of those stories that we’ve never otherwise had that allows the tales to live on as you see what happens to some of the most iconic Christmas personalities.
If you buy a wine or beer to have in your seat, it will put you in the mentality of sitting in a bar. The intimate setting of the theater makes you feel as though you’re a part of this very realistic, quaint bar thanks to the charming, intricately decorated set with a door that even opens to falling snow. Any seat is good in this establishment.
The Hartford Stage has “A Christmas Carol” and TheatreWorks has “Christmas on the Rocks.” I’ll raise a glass to both and hope this one becomes a longtime staple. Tradition is nice around the holidays, isn’t it?
“Christmas on the Rocks” runs through Dec. 23. Go to theaterworkshartford.org for more information on the production and to buy tickets.