Nothing profound in IRT's abreviated 'Wonderful Life'

December 22, 2008

This week, thoughts on three holiday shows-and one in-your-face alternative.

"This Wonderful Life" features actor Jerry Richardson as, well, everyone in Bedford Falls. This minimalist holiday offering, clocking in at about 70 minutes, certainly doesn't waste any time. But it also doesn't add much to our experience, understanding, or appreciation of "It's a Wonderful Life," the cinematic cultural touchstone that is mandatory viewing this time of year.

Whether on stage or on screen, "It's a Wonderful Life" is a great story that resonates even after all these years. And another sort of play might have explored that in more depth. While few of us can identify too closely with the characters of Scrooge or Clara (the two holiday stage icons seen just about everywhere else these days), who among us hasn't wondered if we have made the most of our seemingly ordinary lives? Who hasn't found that pocket of despair or questioned whether our impact on the world ultimately has been positive or negative? Who among us isn't, in some way, George Bailey?

Playwright Steve Murray retells the tale cleanly — putting a few asides into his actor's mouth ("Have you ever noticed how much the story is about money?" Well, duh.) but nothing very resonant or insightful. Still, being told a familiar story can be a satisfying enough experience without blazing any new trail.

When you hear it yet again, it's easy to keep jumping ahead mentally, wondering how Richardson is going to handle the Charleston scene that leads into the swimming pool, the run on the bank, the disappearance of the money, the jumping from the bridge, etc. Some musicals offer sing-along versions, but here you might find yourself tempted to speak along.

Richardson handles it all ably. And to say he isn't Jimmy Stewart (or, for that matter, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore) isn't really fair.

The ending of the show is moving but, come on, this is "It's a Wonderful Life." The ending would be moving if it were performed by Paulie Shore.

Lighting, set design and the sole costume are all what you would want from a professional staging of this exercise. And as a diversion, it's a very pleasant one. But the memory of this ephemeral play was quickly replaced in my mind with that wonderful movie. I left looking forward to seeing it again this holiday season.

Maybe that's the play's rather modest point.

I shouldn't have waited so long to catch "On Thin ice: A Very Phoenix Xmas 3" (which ran through Dec. 20) but memories of last year's thud of a production kept this new edition from placing high on my must-see list.

The format was roughly the same as it was for past installments: Local playwrights and songwriters were asked to submit irreverent holiday-related material, which was then packaged into an evening of off-center holiday entertainment. But this year, there seemed to be a stronger vision behind the selection and a clearer directorial hand. Sure, there were still duds (a film segment hit the wall) and sketches that needed tightening (including the opening, "Balls" in which the actors played ornaments) but the overall evening worked. I'd argue that a big reason for that is the absence of straight-up spoofery in favor of more character-driven pieces. The show didn't feel desperate for laughs — which made the laughs more frequent.

Highlights included a tap-dance take on "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and a know-just-when-to-quit "Christmas at Amy Wine's House." Also entertaining were a series of seeing-the-joke-coming-but-so-what "Inappropriate Letters to Santa Claus" and a terrific monologue by Richard Furlong titled "The Santa Sentence," made all the better by Michael Shelton's serious performance. The scatological "Poodolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" proved much funnier than the premise (you figure it out) would imply. And the last number, the melancholy, Red Key Tavern-set "That Time of the Year" (words and music by Tim Brickley and David Rheins) was just right, pointing to a sophistication that, balanced with the silliness, leads me to be hopeful for the future. The inevitable "Very Phoenix Xmas 4" will be near the top of next year's holiday theatrical shopping list.

As the holiday season approached again, I wondered if I had perhaps overpraised Actors Theatre of Indiana's 2007 production of "A Year with Frog and Toad." A ribbiting revisit to the too-brief run of the show this year (it closed Dec. 21) proved that, if anything, I didn't praise it enough.

This time, actors Bradley Reynolds and Don Farrell were even more fused to their amphibious alter egos. The simple, entendre-free musical grew stronger from my familiarity with it. The songs were more charming. The modest adventures more evocative. And this time I could better appreciate the committed contributions of the trio of supporting performances and the crystal clear orchestra.

Is it too much to ask for a 2009 return? It truly makes me sad to think of a year without "Frog and Toad."

For a change of pace from all of the holiday fare, I trekked to the Bloomington Playwrights Project for a late-night look at its annual "Sex/Death" show. (How's that for counterprogramming?)

Like "A Very Phoenix Xmas," the lineup for this show consists of selected short plays by submitting playwrights. Unlike "Xmas," it's not offered as a main stage production. The show, which ran through Dec. 17, was staged at 10 p.m. with a mere $5 ticket charge (free to BPP mainstage subscribers). As such, the audience was enthusiastic and generous to the threadbare production and more forgiving of rough spots than they might otherwise be.

Given the nature of the dual — and sometimes overlapping -- title themes for the show, I was surprised to see how tame — and straight — most of the material was. And maybe I'm just immunized from controversy, but the only offense I took at "Sex/Death 2008" was at the ultimately pointless final piece, "Thanksgiving," which posited a tense scene between a mysterious man and his will-try-anything pick-up. Unfortunately it drifted into third-rate horror cliches.

The strongest of the pieces were written for two actors. In "Le Petit Mort," by Bethany Barber, a pair of lovers process the "little death" one experienced. The resulting pillow talk felt both funny and true to the characters. In Mark Kingsbury's "Street Corner," a woman's attempt to lose her virginity before dying proved oddly moving. And Rebecca Martin's "Thursday Routine" hilariously — and simply — recounts a sexual encounter between a couple too immersed in their routines to bother actually touching.

The talented — and occasionally nude — cast went a long way toward making even the lesser material palatable.
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