Famous Door Theatre Company at Jane Addams Center Hull House
I hate Christmas. Not just because what little spiritual message it still conveys--Be nice to people (for a change)--has been overwhelmed by the materialist message: Buy! Acquire! Gimme! But also because none of the traditional holiday theater events--the various Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols, which are based on prosperous middle-class, 19th-century notions of Christmas--have much to say to me as a citizen of late-20th-century downwardly mobile America. I'm supposed to care that Scrooge has discovered the true spirit of Christmas when I know that next year he'll ignore homeless men as he strides over to F.A.O. Schwarz to buy Tiny Tim an expensive train set?
Will Kern's Hellcab Does Christmas was made for cynics like me. Set on Christmas Eve, this truly funny black comedy describes with unblinking honesty an evening in the life of a poor, beleaguered cabdriver. In a series of blackouts we meet an evening shift's worth of crazies, assholes, and other annoying, potentially dangerous passengers. In the hands of a lesser playwright this parade of yuppie lawyers and crabby shoppers and drunk out-of-towners would have been just a line of stock comic characters. But Kern, an actor and English teacher turned cabdriver, has such a keen ear for dialogue that all his characters--even the well-dressed woman lawyer and the born-again couple on their way to church, who are dangerously close to stereotypes--are individuals.
It helps that Kern does a fair amount of stereotype bashing. In one scene at a hotel cabstand it's the black cabdriver wearing a Malcolm X cap who says he won't pick up black passengers or drive to the south side. In another scene the character with a pronounced Pakistani accent--"You will never make any money if you always go this slow"--is a passenger, not another cabdriver, which is how a lesser playwright would cast him.
It also helps that director Jennifer Markowitz has kept the play clean, simple, and free of acting cliches. As the cabdriver Paul Dillon is a man of a thousand moods--crabby, bemused, pissed off, affected by everything that happens in his cab, but never a sap or a sentimental curmudgeon or a psycho. Half the comedy in this show is in watching the pained expression pass over his face as yet another passenger finds yet another way to offend his dignity.
Markowitz couldn't ask for a better cast. The five actors who play four and five roles as Dillon's various passengers are all well versed in the art of creating striking characters quickly and of coaxing comedy out of what are essentially short naturalistic scenes. (Though the play is very funny, it doesn't have a single setup or punch line.) I'm hesitant to single out an actor from an ensemble that works as well together as this one, though I have to admit I especially admire the range of Reggie Hayes, who plays with equal ease a buppie architect and an angry south-sider set on revenge against an "A-rab" used-car dealer, and the range of the two women in the cast, Tara Chocol and Laura Kellogg, who convincingly play a spectrum of characters from tough corporate lawyers to quiet secretary types to screwed-up druggies and drunks.
But what I like most about Hellcab is that Christmas Eve has almost no bearing on the hell Kern's cabdriver goes through. No spirit of Christmas in the guise of an elf or a snowman or a ghost comes to cheer him up, and only a tiny minority of his passengers even bother to wish him merry Christmas. And Kern doesn't slip in a fake optimistic holiday message. Unless you want to call the half-sweet, half-sarcastic final scene--cabdriver heading back to the garage while "I'll Be Home for Christmas" plays on the radio--an uplifting ending.
Sycamore Productions at Synergy Center
Another couple of writers after my heart are Kevin Armold and Gus Buktenica, whose two-act journey into the heart of American darkness, Rage!!! or, I'll Be Home for Christmas, begins with a nasty family get-together and ends with one member of the family being led away to the--but why should I give away the ending? Suffice it to say that in Armold and Buktenica's mean-spirited play everyone gets what he deserves, even the crusading right-wing, pro-death-penalty TV announcer, who discovers at the last minute that the man he's helping send to the electric chair is the man who saved his life in Vietnam.
The play concerns Whitey, the half-mad patriarch of a working-class family so cruel, perverse, selfish, and self-obsessed it makes the Bundys of Married . . . With Children look like the Cleavers. As we meet the members of his family--his screeching, born-again ex-wife, his promiscuous rock-and-roll daughter, his bitchy, effeminate son--we see why he's so filled with rage.
As a satire of the American family, Rage is written in the tradition of Edward Albee's The American Dream and Terrence McNally's Bringing It All Home, but it's a far less subtle work. Though they're talented writers, Armold and Buktenica depend a bit much on broad cultural stereotypes to make their points. They clearly aimed their play at audiences with a strong anti-blue-collar bias: many of the most grievous sins of Whitey's family--the southern drawls, Mom's predilection for tight pants and big hair, the tendency of every family discussion to decay into a screaming match--are sins only against white, northern, upper-middle-class codes of dress and behavior.
Happily, director Tom Detmer avoids the more obvious traps in the script. He doesn't depend on the drawls alone to win laughs, and he's made it obvious that though down-and-out the members of this family are not mere white trash. Happily too, Detmer's cast play the character not the stereotype, and in the process reveal that Armold and Buktenica have more to say than that poor people are tacky.
George Czarnecki makes Whitey such an understandable, multifaceted character that you can't help liking him even as you realize what a monster he is. Similarly, Marc Vann takes glib TV personality Caroll Lombard--who, like Tim Robbins's Bob Roberts, is little more than a shallow liberal's idea of what a rabid neoconservative is like--and turns him into a living and breathing, if not entirely likable person. And in the process Vann reveals that Rage has more to say about television than that media people are assholes.