‘Carol’s Christmas,’ beau humbug
By Celia Wren
Friday, Nov. 25, 2011
The frustrated heroine of "Carol's Christmas" levels kicks and blows at the punching bag that hangs in her apartment. It's too bad the English language doesn't get a comparable workout in this chick-lit-flavored comedy, now making its world premiere at Theatre on the Run. Marni Penning's play riffs in mildly clever fashion on Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but the dialogue is so banal and the characterization so skit-like that the production, anemically directed by Toni Rae Brotons, feels like an exercise in squandered potential.
Penning's salient notion has been to turn Dickens's tale of phantoms and spiritual redemption into a female-oriented self-help parable. After a bitter divorce, the eponymous Carol (Karen Lange) shuts herself up in her Manhattan pad, telecommuting, ordering groceries online and generally wallowing in self-pity. When Christmas Eve arrives, five months into her seclusion, she finds herself confronting the ghosts of a past beau, a present ex-husband and a future lover - specters who offer, as one of them puts it, a "much-needed perspective check."
The interventions have a significant payoff for Carol: Were she a real person, she could probably write it all up in a column for O Magazine. Unfortunately for the theatergoer, though, Carol, her ghosts, and her best friend, Lauren (Allyson Harkey), tend to converse in therapy-speak or talk that's dishwater dull - remarks along the lines of "I was the only one putting any effort into our relationship," or "I will always love you, but I can't go backwards," or "How are your parents?" It doesn't help that Penning's characters sometimes seem to be packages of traits and circumstances, rather than personalities: Carol's ex, Wayne (Jack Powers), is a philandering editor, we're informed - but he mostly seems to be a plot device.
The actors do sink a lot of energy into these made-to-order figures. Muscling around with a self-satisfied glint in his eye, Powers can be diverting, if not plausible, as the oh-so-despicable Wayne. Lange's Carol has some endearingly woebegone moments, and Harkey's Lauren strikes the right glamorous note in her red dress and chartreuse high heels. (Heather Whitpan devised the costumes; Chris Holland designed the disheveled-apartment set). But perhaps for lack of directorial guidance, both women sometimes look awkward on the stage, and their conversations - along with many sequences in the show - contain significant dead-air time. Filling a couple of female roles in drag (he also portrays Carol's ex-boyfriend Adam), Christopher Herring often has the air of an exuberant performer in a college revue.
It's only when Robin Covington arrives as Carol's sister Marley that the comedy briefly lights up. Marley is a Dickens nut and a stressed-out mom: When she materializes supernaturally in Carol's apartment, she has Christmas ornaments in her hair and presents strapped to her waist, and she's wielding a vacuum cleaner. The character and outfit are ingenious spoofs of the Marley phenomenon in the original "Christmas Carol." Dickens's Marley, shackled with ledgers and cash boxes, is the slave of money: Penning's Marley is a slave to motherhood and domesticity. But Covington elevates the character beyond a type, turning Marley into a vivacious and slightly crazed eccentric who would probably be good company even when she's worrying about carpooling.
Alas, Marley is not the protagonist of "Carol's Christmas," the first full-length show from Pinky Swear Productions. And when this figure leaves the stage, the play resumes its well-meaning gracelessness - rather like a neglected punching bag dangling in a gym.