Theater review: Funny ‘Mrs. Bob’ Provides Irreverent Relief

FRANKLIN, Tenn. – I admire “A Christmas Carol,” but there are times when watching the umpteenth stage or screen presentation of the Charles Dickens classic that I feel as if it’s trying to force an entire bottle of treacle (sugary syrup for the uninitiated) down my throat. My gag reflex usually kicks in when an actor playing Tiny Tim serves up a super-sweet rendition of “God bless us, everyone!”

Christopher Durang certainly knows that feeling. The playwright that gave us such beautifully demented works as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Betty’s Summer Vacation and The Marriage of Bette and Boo gleefully skewers Scrooge and company in Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge.

Boiler Room Theatre is the latest troupe to successfully trot out this spoof, which was first produced at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre in 2002. In reviewing that premiere Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that this “happy perversion of Dickens” is “a rollicking parody that caters to our desire to have our traditional holiday and mock it, too, like Inspecting Carol, SantaLand Diaries, A Tuna Christmas and the rest.” I couldn’t put it better so I won’t even try.

Our guide through Durang’s wacky and warped play is a Billie Holliday-loving Christmas Ghost (Piper Jones) who is supposed to lead old Ebenezer (Phil Perry) to redemption by showing him the past, present and future. She notes that his frequent utterance “Bah! Humbug!” might now be diagnosed as a kind of “seasonal Tourette’s Syndrome” and confidently predicts she’ll cure him of his mean, miserly ways.

That confidence is obviously misplaced, though, because her attempts to show Scrooge such visions as a long-ago holiday party with the jovial Fezziwigs (J.R. Knowles and Taylor Green) keep landing them at the home of his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit (Brad Oxnam) and his even-longer-suffering wife Gladys (Lisa Gillespie).

Gladys is not a happy camper – the unending pathos of her family’s dreary existence, even with the delusionary cheerfulness of a rather tall Tiny Tim (Josh Lowery) and her never-met-a-foundling-I-couldn’t-bring-home hubby, is driving her to drink and a planned attempt to end it all by jumping off London Bridge.

There are plenty of appropriately dated cultural references – some were dated in 2002, and even a nod to the Enron scandal now seems quaint following the recent economic meltdown – that purposely undercut the hackneyed “timeless classic” label attached to “A Christmas Carol.” And there are references not only to other Dickens works (one of the Cratchit children is a plus-size Little Nell from “The Old Curiosity Shop” played by Green) but to others’ yuletide stories like O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” It’s a nutty theatrical fruitcake that even includes four silly songs with lyrics by Durang (sample: “Be happy and perky, you’re gonna eat turkey/Be snippy and snappy, ’cause Christmas is happy”) and music by Michael Friedman.

Director Corbin Green’s cast is up to the zany challenges of this piece. Gillespie, Jones, Oxnam, Perry and Lowery anchor the fun with their absolutely earnest performances; after all, it’s only funny if the characters behave as if it’s serious, and the foursome’s actions and reactions allow us to laugh at their characters’ expense.

Green, Knowles and the rest of the cast – including Vicky White and Bryce Conner as well as adorable youngsters Addison McFarland and Hayden Gill – are entertaining too. Of special note is the energetically hilarious work turned in by BRT Artistic Director Jamey Green as a bed liner-wearing Ghost of Jacob Marley and a befuddled angel Clarence (yes, from that movie set in Bedford Falls). It’s not Green’s first time out of the orchestra section (he plays piano for this show, too) but it is a rare opportunity nevertheless.

With the BRT stage being used for two shows this holiday season Corbin Green has wisely kept the setting spare and reliant on various props and pieces; Katie Delaney as usual has everyone properly attired. There’s a dysfunctional-Christmas-pageant atmosphere to Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge which the setting, costumes and performances capture; in this commercially, socially and theatrically overstuffed holiday season the show is an irreverent relief.

Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge continues through Dec. 22 at Boiler Room Theatre (230 Franklin Rd., Bldg. Six). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. on select Fridays (Nov. 30, Dec. 7 and Dec. 21), Saturdays (Dec. 1, 8, 15 and 22), Tuesdays (Dec. 4, 11 and 18) and Thursday, Dec. 20. There will also be a matinee performance on Sunday, Dec. 9. Ticket prices for Friday and Saturday evening performances are $27 for adults, $25 for seniors (age 60 and up) and students (age 13 through college with valid ID), and $21 for children ages 3 through 12. Matinee prices are $2 less respectively. All Tuesday shows are two-for-one ($27 for two tickets; no other discounts apply). Tickets for the Thursday, Dec. 20 performance are $17. Tickets may be purchased by calling Boiler Room Theatre at 615-794-7744 or online at www.boilerroomtheatre.com.

*Photos by Rick Malkin courtesy Rick Malkin Photography and Boiler Room Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).