A bar once new to Hartford has become a staple to visit come Christmas time. You know the name of every character who comes in, though the bar’s name escapes you. It’s the kind of bar where you spill your holiday sob stories to an old-time bartender over a “root canal” mixer or wild turkey shot. It is a Christmas cocktail with a kick – and that is “Christmas on the Rocks,” a holiday tradition of twisted Christmas stories at TheaterWorks.
The bar has the same charming, realistic look every year, complete with a leg lamp, Christmas decorations, and a seemingly working tap. Mostly the same characters filter in and out telling stories you’ve heard before – Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” Hermey the elf dentist from “Rudolph,” Karen from “Frosty the Snowman,” Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol,” Clara from “The Nutcracker,” and Charlie Brown. So what keeps people coming back? It might be the nostalgia of watching holiday classics at home in your pink fluffy bunny pajamas. But it’s also because every year, the menu has a little bit of a makeover.
While the show mostly features the same grown-up Christmas characters bemoaning their real-world gripes annually, this year’s production introduces a few new personalities to the line-up.
Zuzu (Jenn Harris) from “It’s a Wonderful Life” replaces the “Miracle on 34th Street” vignette. While the concept of an angsty, paranoid adult Zuzu afraid of bells and wing-seeking angels had promise, the sketch didn’t have the same level of edge, humor and intrigue as the other stories. It was more tragic than amusing and didn’t add much to the string of Christmas tales. However it built as it went along and came to an endearing, crashing close with an Amazon box full of laughs.
The show also introduces a new bartender – Tom Bloom, who has a resume that includes Broadway and television. He is like the wise, elderly neighbor next door who will put you in your place when crossed but who will always be there to offer sound advice and lend an ear. He has to face a lot of characters with a dash of crazy and serious issues, but he listens unconditionally nonetheless and gives them a shot of genuine kindness and perspective to guide them back on track. Most of them.
In the later vignettes, he is more judgmental and harsh with the characters. He embodies the spirits who visit Scrooge to Tiny Tim, teaching him a lesson. He cracks through the manic, jealous, age-conscious nut that is Clara, sinking his teeth into her cruelty but also dishing her sympathy.
Whereas the former bartender was like an endearing Father Christmas, Bloom was more like us – the audience. He is the receiver of stories and has his own preconceived notions of the characters that are challenged. Sometimes we see his judgement and other times his support, just as someone hearing a story or watching a movie is a listener. You have to take the narrator’s words for truth no matter how far-fetched and absurd it sounds, you’re sucked into the world of the story and you react stronger to some parts more than others. You pass judgements. In that regard, a bar is a perfect venue and metaphor for storytelling because the bartender naturally falls into the role of the captive listener. They are all-knowing in a sense just like the reader as you get a third party window into the world of the storyteller.
The beautiful thing about “Christmas on the Rocks” is the structure of individual one-act plays anchored by the bar setting to a flowing, connected narrative. It makes sense because the people that come into a bar all lead separate lives with different stories and the bar brings strangers from different walks of life together.
The one narrative that leaves our bartender mostly silent is in “My Name Is KAREN!” when he is gagged with a fluffy Santa and bound with Christmas lights as Karen from ” Frosty the Snowman”broadcasts her vlog live and answers her fans’ Tweets. The sketch written by the two other actors in the production, Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, is one of the newest and most memorable vignettes, largely because it is the most current and utilizes video technology projecting what Karen is recording live-time on large screens. The utilization of such new technology in a quiet old bar in a production featuring the modern time tribulations of characters from old yet timeless Christmas stories represents the clash and conflict the characters face as they reflect on the past and deal with current problems. The segment also represents the need to be heard and the focus on self that the age of social media and YouTube has enabled. That perhaps is why the bartender is held hostage – because of Karen’s desire for a captive audience.
The actors also added in lines to older vignettes to keep it current, including a Donald Trump crack from Tiny Tim.
“Christmas on the Rocks” regulars also come back from year to year to see Harris and Wilkas. The production really tests their versatility as actors as they play multiple characters with gripes. The most vibrant scenes involve both actors’ knack for physical comedy. Wilkas excels as a flamboyant Hermey the elf, seemingly channeling Jack from “Will & Grace” and Dana Carvey in his voice and expressions as he hops on the bar and caresses the bartender while speaking innuendos. Harris’ Russian accent, nut-cracking (peanuts were harmed in the making of this production), and splits lift the audience into laughter. Her close-ups as the fame-obsessed Karen on live camera drive the punchlines of her delivery.
Wilkas has the more depressed characters, while half of the ones Harris plays are more angry. However, the opening sketch with Ralphie, now a sexually frustrated and divorced “plushy” who needs fluffy things nearby to be intimate, is strong because of the writing and “A Christmas Story” references. His Charlie Brown scene at the end is the perfect way to close, presenting one of the only happy endings in the vignettes as he finally gets a moment of joy kicking the football and dancing with his childhood crush.
If you want to drink something simple and sweet go to your local bar. But if you want something with a flavor and edge to spark a good laugh, go to “Christmas on the Rocks.”
The show runs through Dec. 23, so you have plenty of time to see it this holiday season. Ticket information is available at www.theaterworkshartford.org/event/christmas-on-the-rocks-3/.