Complaining that a Keen Company show is too quaint is a little like whining that the magician lied to you. If that wasn’t what you were looking for, you were in the wrong place from the beginning. With “Beasley’s Christmas Party,” as nearly always, Keen a.d. and helmer Carl Forsman and a passel of well-respected designers (costumer Theresa Squire and inspired set decorator Beowulf Boritt, to name two) have made their earnest show look beautiful, and the tiny cast gives a multiplicity of wonderfully precise performances as the inhabitants of its smalltown setting.
Joseph Collins plays the Beasley of the title, a sort of mirror universe Ebenezer Scrooge whose most salient failing is that he gives too freely to charity. Channeling Jimmy Stewart, Collins makes Beasley less of a one-dimensional saint than a grade-A nice guy, though it’s hard to know what to make of him at first.
With town newcomer Booth (the show’s narrator, named for “Beasley’s” prose story author, Booth Tarkington, and played by Tony Ward) to guide us, we get to know Beasley slowly, learning about his quirks secondhand and getting a good look at him only when he’s acting like a total loon.
Beasley is the story’s mystery — who is he? Why is he no longer engaged to town beauty Anne Apperthwaite (Christa Scott-Reed)? Why does he appear to be calling invisible dogs and having jumping contests with people who aren’t there? There’s an old-fashioned device that Forsman and Tarkington adapter C.W. Munger are using here, and if it were always executed this skillfully, it would be much more popular: the mysterious character who’s actually more noble than he appears. (The Keen Company excels at this sort of old-timey optimism — its readings series is called “Chestnuts.”)
Beasley’s various oddities seem to hinge on the adoption of his late cousin’s disabled son Hamilton, played with all the Tiny Tim trappings by Scott-Reed. It’s here that the play really threatens to get into trouble: besides the addition of an adorable child, we also have an African-American character written in dialect for a white actor.
But although the 1909 slang hits the ear a little off-key, there’s a goodhearted intelligence to all these portrayals. As they duck behind Boritt’s stacks of steamer trunks and train cases (the gorgeous set is mostly made of luggage) to change characters, the actors seem as deeply engaged in entertaining as that magician concentrating on a complicated trick.
In a way, they’re engaged in a sleight of hand as impressive as any number of rabbit-filled top hats: with their utter devotion to craftsmanship, they’re distracting us from the play’s age until we, without realizing, have been enchanted by it.