The Long Christmas Dinner; Mysteries of the Bridal Night | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Long Christmas Dinner; Mysteries of the Bridal Night 

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THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER

Gallery Theatre Company

MYSTERIES OF THE BRIDAL NIGHT

Blind Parrot Productions

Off-Off Loop Theatre Festival at the Theatre Building

If the Blind Parrot and Gallery theaters' contributions to the ongoing Off-Off Loop Theatre Festival were cornered and forced to confess their theme, it would be the search for permanence in the midst of change. In one the change amounts to almost a century of family life; in the other a young couple's wedding night. In both, the bewildering, bittersweet necessity that new life (and new lives) crowds out the old gives the one-acts, despite widely different stagings, an urgency and warmth both strong in themselves and very complementary to each other.

The Gallery Theatre Company entry, Thornton Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner, combines two of the playwright's best obsessions, the persistence of memory despite death (Skin of Our Teeth) and the folly of taking life for granted (Our Town). Wilder invents a family Christmas dinner that stretches over 90 years in the same house. Told with strategic gaps between the dinners, it begins with Lucia and Roderick Bayard celebrating their first Christmas in their new home. They lovingly listen to his mother's tales of the Indians who once possessed their land and of earlier Bayards she dimly recalls. As the dinner continues and the years roll on, a Bayard, young or old, will occasionally get up, walk stage right toward a gradually illuminated doorway and, with some characteristic flourish, exit forever, plunging the other diners into sudden mourning. (Sometimes a Bayard turns away just in time -- but only temporarily.) Almost as often from stage left a nurse wheels in a baby carriage containing a new Bayard. ("Stay just as you are," the doting father urges in vain.) The decorous conversation -- about the weather, ancient family gossip, memory lapses, health troubles (which usually means that person's soon to head for the door) -- creates a whole much greater than the family's human parts. A son killed in World War I, a baby dying before Christmas, a grandson refusing to inherit the Bayard factory and hating the dull town he'll run away from, a spinster cousin sick of her role as the family historian -- throughout it all Wilder skirts sentimentality to pose his point: if we saw how quickly life goes by, we'd know how important it is to appreciate those who give us that precious gift, and to love those to whom we give it. The Bayard family's ebb and flow has the grace of a river flowing inevitably toward the sea: you believe the character who comforts another with, "There's nothing sad about death."

Randall Packer's stately (some times stiff) direction briskly moves the Bayards through their dance of life with economy and mercifully little self-consciousness (the play abounds with pointed gallows humor). Gallery's eight actors occasionally double as their characters' own children, neatly suggesting Wilder's essential continuity. The best of the Bayards, Laura Kellog poignantly ages from an eager bride to a wise veteran more than ready to march through that door. Few folks are lucky enough to know how and when to make the perfect exit.

The evening's gem was Blind Parrot Productions' quirkier, more acidic counterweight, Mysteries of the Bridal Night, Martin Epstein's hilarious and knowing depiction of a wonderfully bizarre wedding night. While driving to their inevitable honeymoon consummation, the newlyweds discover a curious coffin with a tinkling bell attached to its cross that communicates "yes" and "no" answers. At first the bride, Cheryl, wants to "mace" the talking tomb while her husband Arthur fears it's a trap. Gradually the coffin becomes a conversation piece that allows the lovers to come to grips with their new future -- by raking up a bunch of grievances they've accumulated but never aired.

Arthur complains about the way Cheryl says his name. Mangling it even more, Cheryl counters, "I don't know who or what you are!" Arthur has the same feeling when Cheryl confesses that instead of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at a school assembly, she choked up real toads from her mouth. To prove it she has an amphibian attack on the spot, but hubbie calms her back into humanhood. Though they eventually manage to bring their bodies together (offstage), the newlyworrieds remain haunted by the fear that they will end up no better than their multiply divorced friends. (Does he/she really believe in any permanence that includes me?) Only when Arthur -- in a mystifying soliloquy -- discovers a saving "concept" (involving dinosaurs and Hannibal) can the young people drive back out into the night. Its bellpull severed during one of the fights, the catalytic coffin is now silent, its oddly touching mission accomplished.

Epstein's quicksilver wit requires sharp and cunning acting chemistry and stand-up comic timing, both amply supplied by Norma Saldivar's never-say-dull direction. Sweeping around in her overly elaborate wedding dress like the wrath of doom, Clare Nolan-Long makes an earthy, bullshit-busting, but monumentally disturbed Cheryl -- no dewy-eyed innocent who just stepped off the wedding cake but a moody, intricately mixed-up, would-be wife. With a Joan Rivers deadpan and her own native guile, Nolan-Long makes Cheryl's every change count like currency. Equally right, Donald Nicholis registers with winsome accuracy the opening night panic of a scared spouse -- as well as Arthur's false confidence and wistful longings. Happily, Nicholis never succumbs to Arthur's sometimes cloying craziness, he just plays the moment for all it's worth. And here those moments a mount to a treasure trove of wacky theater.

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