Comic actor John Michael Higgins stars in the play 'Take Joy!' at Strathmore

John Michael Higgins
John Michael Higgins (Kevin Winter - Getty Images)
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By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

You know John Michael Higgins. The comic character actor turns up all the time in juicy, scene-stealing bits in film and on TV. He was Therapist No. 1 in the recent "Couples Retreat," a smiley folksinger in "A Mighty Wind" (2003) and a fey dog fancier in "Best in Show" (2000) -- the latter two satires by Christopher Guest that have achieved cult status. He's had recurring roles on the TV series "Community" and famously played David Letterman in HBO's 1996 docudrama "The Late Shift."

But Higgins began his career doing classical theater in New York and regionally, and got his start as a kid in Montgomery County in the early days of Round House Theatre, when it was still called Street '70 in the late 1970s.

And he is coming back, ever so briefly, to appear in a holiday show at Strathmore, "Take Joy!," Friday and Saturday. He'll play an actor dressed as a shepherd who wanders into the concert hall expecting to tell the story of Christmas in a traditional way and gets more than he bargained for.

"A shepherd, me, shows up, hoping to do a Christmas pageant and is kind of sandbagged by how . . . the notion of Christmas has expanded in so many different ways in the past 30 years or more, that there's now many different types of Christmas celebrations and a thousand different cultures," says Higgins, adding, "Your grandfather's Christmas pageant won't do anymore."

Strathmore president and chief executive Eliot Pfanstiehl got the idea for "Take Joy!" when he realized that even as a "Christmas junkie," he had "sorta had it up to here with the same seasonal theatrical musical fare." Pfanstiehl says he thought, "There's got to be something new." He confabbed with Round House alums Jerry Whiddon and Jeff Davis and came up with "Take Joy!" They brought in composer Roger Ames, who had worked with them decades earlier, and spun a new holiday event.

"The concept is in the middle of the darkest, coldest time of the year . . . how can we find joy? This is not a Christmas play. It's not a Hanukkah play . . . it's not a Kwanzaa play. . . . I would call it more like a quilt," says Pfanstiehl. "It's about three-quarters known music and about a quarter original new work." There will be an adult chorus, a children's chorus, an orchestra and hip-hop dancers.

Higgins, busy as he is, seems eager to visit his old stomping ground. "I did a lot of musicals at the Rockville Civic Center under Street '70," the 46-year-old remembers. "I'd been working with these guys since I was 9 years old. We had done tons of theater together, of every stripe and color, most of it quite on the fly, so I feel like I'm returning to my roots a bit."

The Devil and Max McLean

"When I came to faith, I really wanted to find a way to use my theatrical background to present works of faith," says New York-based actor Max McLean. So he founded the nonprofit Fellowship for the Performing Arts, "to present theater from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience."

He has done that with a touring adaptation of C.S. Lewis's 1942 epistolary novel "The Screwtape Letters," which ran in Washington at the Lansburgh Theatre in spring 2008, and begins a return engagement there Wednesday through Jan. 3.

In "The Screwtape Letters," Lewis imagined how an erudite, high-ranking devil named Screwtape, assisted by his demonic secretary, Toadpipe, would compose letters of instruction and encouragement to his apprentice, Wormwood. Wormwood, poor fellow, is having difficulty turning a newly converted young man away from Christianity and back to materialism and selfishness. The fascination for audiences, says McLean, is that Lewis was trying to imagine "how demons feel about us. . . . He gets inside their skin."

McLean, who co-adapted the script with the show's director, Jeffrey Fiske, says they tried to keep the essence of Lewis's dense text, yet make the show accessible. The first version ran about 2 1/4 hours in 2006. It put a strain on McLean's voice and needed an intermission, he says. They've since pared it down.

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