It’s the bar where everyone knows your Christmas character. Take that, flip it upside down, shake it up, and pour it over ice with a twist and you’ve got Christmas on the Rocks at TheaterWorks in Hartford.
One by one, adult versions of characters from popular holiday flicks spit out into the real world filter into a cozy, quiet, small-town bar decked out in all things Christmas, looking for something and maybe someone as they work their issues.
Impressively, only two actors play all the Christmas characters. Jenn Harris, who has been with the TheaterWorks original since it debuted a few years ago, plays all the women and newcomer Randy Harrison plays all the men with the exception of the bartender.
Tom Bloom returns as our patient, compassionate but straight-talking bar owner who was once quite the facilitator of “the hookup” before internet dating slowed down business. He serves up some fatherly advice, many shots of Wild Turkey and vodka, and a dose of reality. When he’s alone, he flips through the channels watching different Christmas movies, mouthing the words.
Like most bartenders experience, he falls into the role of a therapist without judgement for the most part because “he’s heard it all.” Though he does get rather cross with Clara from the Nutcracker and Tiny Tim when they insult him, so he’s not afraid to call patrons out when they’re being unreasonable. If he doesn’t have any wise counsel, he’s blunt about it. It’s funny because how many times have you spilled all your secrets to a bartender or stranger sitting next to you at the bar, expecting them to hold the answer you’re seeking when they really don’t know what to say or how to help you? It’s a listening game, similar to the position of the audience. We just listen and absorb.
And our endearing bartender sure is generous as none of the characters pay for their drinks. They’re on the house whether he offers it or not. After all, it’s Christmas Eve.
The structure of the play is quite unique, blending seven vignettes written by different authors into one fluid story, featuring characters from A Christmas Story, It’s A Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, and Charlie Brown. The lineup sometimes varies. In the past they’ve had Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Susan from A Miracle on 34th Street. I’m still hoping for Rusty from Christmas Family Vacation (maybe I’ll get to writing it).
Anyways, the play challenges our perceptions of these popular Christmas personalities as once sweet character spiral into flawed, jaded, and sometimes borderline psychotic individuals. Holiday protagonists like Frosty and Rudolph are villainized.
Harris and her former costar, Matthew Wilkas, who used to play all the male roles, wrote one of the newer sketches with the highest production value – “My Name Is KAREN!”, which happens in the middle of the play. She bursts into the bar as grownup Karen from animated Frosty and holds our barkeep hostage, gagging him with a stocking and tying him up with a string of Christmas lights that twinkle when she plugs them in. This is all so she can stage her vlog, The Karen Show, in a secure, undisclosed location. From singing a fun, tacky theme song to answering tweets that are too Frosty-centric for her liking, she remarkably streams her show from a tablet and smartphone to a projector displaying the video live time on screens on either side of the stage. It adds to the humor as we look back and forth between the live action before us and the video with extreme closeups.
On the run with melted Frosty in a bucket, Karen’s vanity and attention-seeking determination, enhanced by her technology, really comments on today’s self-absorbed and social media consumed society. It’s an inside joke of sorts to the audience who can strongly relate to the concept.
She, like many of the other characters portrayed, gives us a harsher perspective on beloved holiday classics we think we know, resentful that she was forgotten after saving Frosty while he claims all the fame. Harris is hilarious throwing shade at Frosty and Santa for leaving her as a child on a roof at the end of the story, resulting in her falling to the ground and breaking her neck. It’s a question that only an adult would ask that goes overlooked in a simplistic children’s story before we grow skeptical and scrutinize details based on logic instead of suspending our disbelief like we did in the wonderment of being a child.
Drink up, Karen. And that she does. Poor Frosty. Actually that’s what all of our other characters do as they come to terms with deep-routed issues centered on their Christmas backstories.
Harris also stands out in Still Nuts About Him by Edwin Sánchez as Clara from the Nutcracker, sporting a heavy Russian accent, nightgown, and ballet slippers as she downs vodka while freaking out about her cheating, distant, workaholic nut-cracking husband. She cracks herself – manically smashing peanuts on the bar with a nutcracker replica she decapitates. Don’t worry, she has another in her bag. Even though Clara barely smiles, she sends us into uproarious laughter with her physical comedy and outbursts. Harris is actually quite flexible, slipping into spread eagles and splits, exposing her undergarments and all her insecurities.
Harris is depressing as a paranoid, mentally scarred Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life who is terrified that the angels are after her every time a bell rings because she let the secret out that that’s how they can get their wings in A Miserable Life by Jacques Lamarre. I could take or leave that storyline, which is very sad. But it does get funnier as it goes along, from other variations on the saying and a haunting Carol of the Bells to a special delivery of angel wings from her father, George Bailey’s angel on Amazon. The ending of the sketch is a morbid, yet uplifting, so it redeems itself.
Meanwhile, Harrison pours misery into his string of characters, including A Christmas Story’s Ralphie, who opens the lineup, in “All Grown Up” by John Cariani, claymation Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’s elf dentist Hermey in “Say It Glows” by Jeffrey Hatcher, A Christmas Carol’s Tiny Tim in “God Bless Us Everyone” by Theresa Rebeck, and Charlie Brown In Merry Christmas, Blockhead at the end.
But we get laughs in his Ralphie sequence – from his Trump crack, a joke added after the 2016 presidential election that keeps with the times, to his fetish for plush stuffed animals and outfits thanks to the pink bunny onesie from Aunt Clara. Some of the humor comes from perspectives that completely flip our understanding of holiday storylines like how Ralphie actually really, really loved that bunny suit and irony like the fact Scut Farkus shot Ralphie’s eye out in a NRA BB class he was teaching.
Harrison shines comically as Hermey, one of my favorite bits in the show, playing up the flamboyant nuances of the character and sexual innuendo behind “dentist” as a euphemism, giggling, strutting, jumping, bouncing, and mounting the bar (and nearly the bartender). And, man he can talk, so much so that the bartender leaves the room at one point during his story full of anger, hurt, vengeance and guilt about a bloody falling out with a smug, celebrity-tainted Rudolph that costs him his red nose. Order several “root canals,” it’s going to be a long appointment. But we adore this sassy elf for it.
Tiny Tim has always been my least favorite character in this show because he’s the grimmest, darkest persona and there doesn’t seem to be a real reason for his depressed, arrogant mood that has him perhaps even more cynical and entitled than Scrooge.
Even though Harrison’s Charlie Brown is really mopey and you feel bad for him, amplifying the hallmark qualities of that character, his closing storyline goes from a broken, pathetic marriage with Lucy who yappers on over the phone with the honking gibberish of the Peanuts adults and teacher to hopeful with the entrance of Harris as Little Red Haired Girl, his childhood crush. It’s the only scene all three actors are on stage together, ending on a heartwarming note that we are not alone and things can always get better.
Not to be mistaken for A Christmas Carol down the street at Hartford Stage, this too has become an original holiday tradition in our capital city. If you’re someone who anticipates watching Christmas movies every year, you’ll really love and appreciate Christmas on the Rocks.
While you can’t buy a drink from the set bar, which is quite realistic and charming with iconic Christmas décor like the leg lamp Ralphie caresses out of nostalgia the way he does in the film, you can sip on something from the theater bar while you watch.
More information on the show and buying tickets is available on theaterworkshartford.org.org.