Premiered in 2002 at Pittsburgh’s City Theater, “Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge” has become a popular alternative Yuletide offering for small-to-midsize theaters nationwide. But, the freewheeling satire of “A Christmas Carol” (among other things) sports playwright Christopher Durang’s usual tactic of swinging wide — missing as often as he hits. As SF Playhouse’s uneven production demonstrates, broad material such as this needs very precise execution to avoid turning into crude burlesque.
The opening is not promising: A strained welcoming monologue by our guide, the Ghost of Christmases Past, Present and Future (Cathleen Riddley, working too hard to ingratiate), and a scene in which a child Scrooge (played on the night reviewed by Gideon Lazarus) is already bah-humbugging everything, Christmas in particular.
“Binge’s” cynical humor would work better if all the children’s roles were handled by caricaturing adults, rather than the four youngsters who alternate here. Cuteness is irrelevant in this context; they come off as simply amateur.
Things improve when the Ghost introduces adult Scrooge (Victor Talmadge), who abuses terminally cheerful employee Bob Cratchit (Keith Burkland) no end. When United Way reps ask for a donation — despite this being 1840s London — they get similar treatment. Until, that is, it’s revealed they also work for an organization suspiciously like Enron.
Gladys, aka Mrs. Cratchit (Joan Mankin), is fed up with everything, especially Bob’s cloying do-gooder habit of constantly bringing new foundlings home — they can barely afford to feed their own impoverished family, let alone the 20 orphans kept in the root cellar.
And, then there’s lame Tiny Tim (Lizzie Calogero), who’s so into being the little martyr that when the prospect of yet more domestic suffering arises, he gushes, “Think how pathetic I’ll be then!” Finally driven over the edge, Gladys announces she’s leaving to get drunk and commit suicide by throwing herself into the Thames.
Durang has fun upending sacred Xmas cows. He parodies “It’s a Wonderful Life” with an angel (Brian Degan Scott, aping Henry Travers in the film) letting Gladys see what life would have been like if she’d “never been born.” It worked for Jimmy Stewart, but this time, it turns out everyone was much happier without Mrs. C.
“Binge” manages to be more impudent than mean-spirited. But it’s still a scattershot affair both on the page and in Joy Carlin’s staging. Mankin and Talmadge are droll, Calogero (a grown woman playing a small boy) is often hilarious. Jean Forsman as a plus-sized Li’l Nell and the other multicast adult actors all have their moments.
But too often the production is noisy and broad where it ought to be honing Durang’s satire to a sharper point. Iffy singing of several songs (original parodies of Christmas carols as well as some excerpted jazz standards for Riddley) is no big plus, but Kim A. Tolman’s clever set of jumbo books that “open” to provide scene changes is a solid primary design contrib.