Nov 27, 2013
11:06 AM
Arts & Entertainment

This Season, Hartford's TheaterWorks Gives Us Christmas Cheer with a Shot of Wry

This Season, Hartford's TheaterWorks Gives Us Christmas Cheer with a Shot of Wry

Don't know about you, but I've whiled away countless pre-Christmas hours on my couch, year after year, watching the same holiday movies and specials I loved as a child. A Christmas Carol. "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Miracle on 34th Street. It's a Wonderful Life. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." I've never for a second resented the same-old, same-old being trotted out every year—it wouldn't really be Christmas without them, after all—but I confess I've pondered what might have happened to the key characters, mostly children, after the curtain went down. Did Tiny Tim survive? Did Charlie Brown ever outgrow his insecurities? What about Miracle's Susan Walker and Wonderful's Zuzu Bailey? Did they find true happiness? I mean, just because it says "The End" on the screen doesn't mean these characters couldn't have had afterlives.

Fortunately, Rob Ruggiero, the producing artistic director of Hartford's TheaterWorks—and Broadway director of the plays High and Looped—thinks this way too. Several months ago, while planning the theater's 2013-14 season, he realized he wanted a break from the usual holiday stage fare. "I thought, wouldn't it be funny if we had monologues from Christmas stories we've grown up with, like an adult Charlie Brown, or a middle-aged Zuzu? I tested the idea on people I knew, and they thought it was fun. Then, I thought, 'If we're going to do this, we should do it with multiple playwrights."

Not just any playwrights. Ruggiero invited and won the participation of colleagues like Jonathan Tolins, author of the hit off-Broadway play Buyer & Cellar; Matthew Lombardo, author of both High and Looped; Jacques Lamarre, a rising local talent whose I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti was a huge hit during TheaterWorks' 2011-12 season; Theresa Rebeck, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize nominee Omnium Gatherum and producer-creator of the TV series "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "Smash"; and David Lindsay-Abaire, co-author of Shrek-The Musical and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Hole. All of them jumped at the chance to bring their favorite Christmas characters to life: Rebeck chose Tiny Tim, Lombardo Cindy Lou Who and Lindsay-Abaire Zuzu (whose story, unfortunately, he was unable to complete due to working on the script for the upcoming big-budget movie Poltergeist). "But if this first production works, he'll definitely be involved next year," Ruggiero says.

Ultimately, the show will be composed of seven 10-15 minute character monologues, each with its own title: Charlie Brown's will be called "Merry Christmas, Blockhead" and Tiny Tim's "God Bless Us, Every One." Susan Walker's "The Cane in the Corner" concerns her rise as a high-powered real-estate agent. (I'll mention no more names so as to preserve a few surprises.) One the characters were in place, Ruggiero realized that to unify the monologues, he'd have to create a context. "All these kids have been affected—even traumatized—by their holiday experiences," he says. "Where would they go in order to tell us their stories? It could only be one of two places—a therapist's office or a bar. I decided the second seemed like more fun; a bartender is a perfect friend to tell your story to." Who to cast? Ruggiero decided that in this case, "the bartender is actually Santa," so he invited old friend and Broadway veteran Ronn Carroll (A Man of No Importance), who will be making his TheaterWorks' debut: "He's certainly Santalike in temperament." Harry Bouvy, a TheaterWorks' veteran, and Christine Pedi will alternate portraying the male and female protagonists. 

As for the bar, which the characters frequent on Christmas Eve, "it's kind of a Christmas purgatory," Ruggiero says. "We needed a place where all the characters could coexist in time. So the bar is a seedy mix of things that represent different periods in the 20th century; for example, the door is very '60s." The overall title for this mélange—Christmas on the Rocks—reflects a show that's meant to be merry, but poignant, too. "It's certainly not all lovey and funny," says Ruggiero. "It's a little edgy, dark, campy and heartwarming. It's very TheaterWorks."

Christmas on the Rocks runs Dec. 3-22. For tickets and information, call (860) 527-7838 or visit theaterworkshartford.org.

This Season, Hartford's TheaterWorks Gives Us Christmas Cheer with a Shot of Wry

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