As their contribution to the 2003 Edge of the World Theater Festival, the much praised Hollywood-based Actors Co-op has opted to debut its 12th season with a world preem legiter that should have stayed in development a while longer. Scripter Michael Brady’s concept of a five-member dysfunctional family banding together to vie in a Christmas lights competition offers some appealing comical moments but is so flawed structurally that it obliterates one’s ability to suspend disbelief. The script is not aided by helmer Gary Lee Reed’s turgid staging and an uneven ensemble.
Set entirely on the Detroit suburban home rooftop (nicely realized by Bobby Bingham) of staunch Catholic Leonard Tchernik (Jim Custer), the production follows approximately six weeks in the lives of his five-member family as they attempt to put aside years of familial discord to strive once again to win an annual neighborhood competition that has always eluded them. Why are they involving themselves, after giving up the task a few years earlier? Leonard has been ordered to do it by God’s messenger Herald (Robin Knight).
The premise, evocative of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Holiday,” quickly becomes bogged down by an over-abundance of ponderous plot machinations. Leonard’s wife Wendy (Callan White) will only consent to do the competition if Leonard allows his disowned Jewish convert daughter Deborah (Wendy Shapero) to return home.
For her part, Deborah is determined to use the occasion to gain recognition from her monumentally inflexible dad of her right to follow the faith of her choice. Leonard is equally resolved that she must return to Catholicism or be forever lost to him.
Completing this family menagerie are Deborah’s volatile, emotionally repressed older brother Stan (John Senekdjian), an ex-football star who is going through some marital problems of his own, and her younger brother Mark (Garry Clemmer), who is hiding a secret not revealed until play’s end. Up until then, Mark mainly serves as a wise-cracking, kibitzing, ongoing irritation to Stan who evokes a few laughs but doesn’t serve the evolution of the plot at all. It is also less than satisfying that nobody’s problems really get resolved without further divine intervention by hard-working Herald.
Reed’s unfocused stagingfurther sabotages Grady’s scenario. The family is supposed to be creating a rooftop holiday lights show. The opening scene is set in mid-October. The next scene is set in mid-November. After nearly a month of rooftop labor, there has been a lot of cathartic chitchat but almost nothing has been visibly accomplished.
One bit of annoying business involves a string of lights that remains tangled during the whole time period, despite going through just about every family member’s hands. Finally, Wendy, without explanation, just arbitrarily dumps it behind one of the set pieces. By the first act final scene, one week before the Thanksgiving Day lights judging, the rooftop is still looking pretty bare.
The between-act intermission flurry of the production’s crew manages to put up a woebegone display that realistically could have been accomplished by one person on a weekend afternoon.
The second act deals with the Tcherniks’ activities the day before Thanksgiving and then Thanksgiving Day. The family’s last-minute frantic efforts to get the lights working appear chaotic and arbitrary, lacking the veracity desperately needed to underscore the show’s unconvincing, feel-good resolution.
One aspect of the production that works quite well is the captivating performance of White as Wendy, the only ensemble member who lends credibility to the notion that this is a family that has supposedly lived together all their lives. Custer plays Jim on one seething note throughout much of his performance, and Shapero’s self-conscious, mannered outing as daughter Deborah belongs in a different play altogether.
Senekdjian, who offers very little emotional variation to his performance, is still believable as the former lineman who once threw his brother off the roof aiming for distance.
Clemmer is likable in his loosely defined role as brother Mark, despite his propensity to be a fraction late with his line cues. Knight, who was brilliant in the last season’s Actor’s Co-op staging of “As It Is in Heaven,” appears to be totally uncomfortable in the guise of hip-talking, chain-smoking angel Herald.