November 30, 2013


Steven Stanley

The laughs come fast and furious in SkyPilot Theatre Company's Christmas 2, however Jeff Goode's latest will need some pruning, tightening, and polishing if it's going to have nearly the afterlife of his smash hit The Eight: Reindeer Monologues. With its curvaceous boozer of an Angel (Susanna Young in one of the production's half-dozen double-cast roles*) opening the evening by toasting the Nativity with a slurred "He's coming you ungrateful motherfuckers!," Bible thumpers stand warned that Christmas 2 is hardly likely to be their cup of decaffeinated tea. On the other hand, those willing to forgo the need for political correctness will get a kick out of how Goode tweaks the Christmas story and its cast of iconic characters.

There's Manny (Nathan Wellman), short for Emmanuel, also known as Jesus, who's reached the age of thirty and would therefore, if this reviewer's Sunday School memories are correct, be just about the right age to return to public life if not for one teensy-weensy problemette. Manny/Jesus has no desire to abandon his current anonymity as an unlicensed veterinarian and take his place as The Son Of God.

Since it's Jesus' birthday today, who should show up on his doorstep but the Virgin Mary herself (Kelly Goodman in full Jewish mother battleaxe mode) with her usual litany of complaints about a son who abandoned the family business to take up with "some whore," the visibly pregnant Maggie (short for Mary Magadalene and played at the performance reviewed by Shelby Janes). Sorry, make that visibly pregnant to anyone other than her na•ve hubby, who's got no clue as to why his wife has "gotten fat."

Meanwhile, over in The Orient, Orient Queen (Marie Pettit Gregson) is berating Orient King (Morry Schorr) for having given away all their gold thirty years ago and leaving them broke, and since the "newborn King" he gave the gold to still hasn't assumed the throne and reimbursed the King and Queen, thereby allowing them to pay off their second mortgage, Her Majesty insists that she and the King head on over to Bethlehem to see what's up (and she's doing the driving).

At the same time as the royal couple are planning their road trip, the vision-impaired daughter of the shepherd who visited Jesus the night of his birth (Franci Montgomery as Shepherd Lass) has decided to stop by his house and see if Jesus/Manny can get her sheep Jonah (Trevor Eyster) back to baaing properly, since all that comes out of Jonah's throat these days is a pathetic little rasp of a baa.

Meanwhile back in Bethlehem, John The Baptist (Anthony Backman) has showed up on Manny's doorstep to try to convince his cousin that the sooner he gets his new religion started, the sooner the war against the Romans can commence. Jesus, however, wants nothing to do with getting his people riled up against the Romans. If he's going to start a religion (which he's not), it's going to be about doing good and loving your fellow man. In any case, Manny/Jesus doesn't want anyone to know it's his birthday as long as there's a contract on his head.

Speaking of which, there's a Roman (Brett Koontz in centurion's toga) on the lookout for anyone remotely connected with an attempt to overthrow the government, and he's not above using "enhanced interrogation" techniques to get any suspected terrorists to talk.

Before you know it, Orient King, Orient Queen, Shepherd Lass, Jonah, and Roman have all converged chez Jesus, and so has a vision of a decapitated John The Baptist, head on a platter, to warn Manny of tonight's impending visit of the spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come.

Completing the cast of characters is none other than Santa Claus himself, and if the snowy-bearded gent is a dead ringer for the Barkeep who was getting the Angel sloshed in scene one, it's because both roles are played by Wayne Baldwin.

Christmas 2 has a lot going for it, not the least of which is playwright Goode's warped sense of humor. (Any writer who has the actor playing John The Baptist come out as a talking head on a platter is all right in my book.) The "Jewish Mother" stereotype is always good for a laugh, and Virgin Mary Goldfarb gets plenty of them. And how about the oh-so white Orient King and Queen who insist that "We're Asian" with the straightest of faces. Anachronistic 21st Century references score laughs too, as do Christmas 2's wink-wink jokes. (Someone interjects "Jesus Christ!" only to have Manny--whose favorite exclamation is "Oh my Dad!"--respond, "Can you please not call me that!") And Goode gets good comic mileage out of Jesus' gift for performing miracles, whether surreptitiously turning his own glass of water into wine or a sack of pathetically small potatoes into some great big fat ones for Mama's latkes.

Still, it takes only a little of all this to go a long way, and at two-and-a-quarter hours in length, Christmas 2 goes on about three-quarters of an hour too long, though it's clear that Goode and company are doing their darnedest to keep things speeding along. Cues are picked up quickly, and there's no wait for scenery changes; the next scene starts up even as furniture and set pieces are being moved and backdrops being switched.

It's always a risky proposition for a writer to direct the first production of his latest play, and though Goode is a talented director, Christmas 2 could benefit from an outsider's eye to help focus the playwright's vision and get the production down to an optimal intermissionless ninety minutes. (If you want this reviewer's two drachmas' worth, I'd suggest cutting the entire second act's journey into A Christmas Carol land down to five minutes if not completely out of the play. Jonah has a long monolog that's well written and performed but, it too could be cut to positive effect. And how about having Santa make a cameo appearance and leave it at that?)

Performances are straight out of Saturday Night Live, which means big and broad and going straight for the laugh, a technique which can work, though less might actually end up being be more and playing the reality of the situation might be funnier than straining for the laugh, another aspect in which an outside director might have reined things in.

The best work is done by Backman, who plays John The Baptist like an actor and not as stand-up; by Goodman, whose overbearing mother is frighteningly, hilariously spot-on; and by Koontz, who underplays The Roman to perfection. Schorr and Gregson make for an entertainingly droll Orient King and Queen, and Montgomery and Eister are charmers as Shepherd and Sheep. I liked Baldwin's takes on the Barkeep and Santa, if a little of the latter went a long way script-wise, and farm-boyish Wellman is an appealing Manny/Jesus if not quite on top of his lines, perhaps the result of having but one performance a week for practice to make perfect. Young's overly broad performance as the sloshed Angel might work better if played for truth rather than as a drunken stereotype. Overall, a bit more polish and precision would benefit make everyone's work better.

Scenic designer Tiffanie McQueen's multi-locale set and Samantha Carro's Biblical-era costumes have a school Christmas pageant look about them, not quite what you'd get in a higher-end production. Maura Reinhart's lighting, James Sharpe's sound, and Samantha Macher's props are all topnotch.

Christmas 2 is produced by Bob Rusch. Mike Cernicky is technical director/set builder and Marla Bjorkdahl is scenic painter. Zelika Chante is stage manager. Additional program credit is given to assistant director Lois Weiss and writer's assistant Sean Engard.

A brand-new Christmas play is always a risky proposition, particularly one as ambitious as Christmas 2. With the right trimming and polishing, Jeff Goode's latest could well turn into another holiday season franchise à la Reindeer Monologues. Though Christmas 2 isn't there yet, Christmas 2 2.0 may well be.

*The roles of Jesus, Maggie, Virgin Mary, Orient Queen, Angel, and Shepherd Lass are double-cast. Orient King, John, Sheep, Barkeep/Santa, and Roman are not.

T.U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Through December 22. Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 7:00. Fridays December 6 and 13 at 8:00. Reservations: 800 838-3006

--Steven Stanley
November 30, 2013