SALT LAKE CITY — Julie Jensen‘s Christmas With Misfits, making its world premier this month at Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, is a collection of four short plays united by one simple and compelling premise: each of its four short vignettes tells a different story about a different set of misfits who find themselves left out from a holiday streamlined by upper middle class American consumer culture. More than a simple Christmas story, Christmas With Misfits offers commentary about American institutions at large, demonstrating how they tend to overwork women and overlook just about everyone else–those who are short, young, gay, poor, old, or simply disenchanted. Unfortunately, while the idea animating Jensen’s play is exciting, the execution falls flat.
As the audience enters the Rose Wagner’s small Studio Theatre, the stage is set with a number of brightly wrapped and oversized Christmas packages. Throughout the play, these set pieces transform, through the magic of the audience’s Christmas imaginations, into coffee tables, booths—whatever the company needs to tell the story. (They also hide chairs and candy.) It’s a touch of Christmas magic in a play that seems to long for—while remaining thoroughly skeptical of—Christmas magic (although, I’m still a little disappointed that no one ever popped out of the adult-sized packages).
As the play opens, so does the Christmas closet center stage, revealing piles and piles of gaudy Christmas clutter and serving as a clear visual metaphor for the excess of the season. Through the closet enters the first of the narrators, played by Jeanette Puhich, clawing her way through the junk and kicking aside giant holiday decorations to set the scene. It’s a charming idea, though, at this preview, the physical comedy lacked the precision and the sense of confidence it needed to sell it. Joining Puhich are two more Plan-B veterans, Kirt Bateman and Colleen Baum. These three performers represent some of the strongest talent in Utah theater, and, together, they take on a series of roles throughout the night. However, in spite of the group’s talent, the actors struggle to bring something real to the scattershot and sometimes confusing script.
The first play of the set, “The Girl and the Elf,” tells the story of a 7-year-old girl (Baum) who brings home a 49-year-old elf (Bateman) from Macy’s on Christmas Eve when her parents are away. While there was a great deal of potential for heart, humor and insight in this piece, even its best moments were almost entirely undermined by the play’s confusing context—or lack thereof. Fundamental questions about the dramatic situation (such as why the elf came home with the girl and why he continues to stay throughout the course of their conversation) are either inadequately fleshed out or else ignored completely, and the resulting scene was often uncomfortable and almost always disorienting.
Next up was “Him and Her on Christmas,” the story of two gay teenage friends (played by Puhich and Bateman) who give each other sex as a Christmas present—just to see what it feels like. The scene picks up with the pair after they’ve done the deed as they sit together talking in the car, and, although there are some nice moments between the actors, these teenagers play more like ten-year-olds, which, once again, prevents the piece from having enough of a believable context to really connect.
Third was “The Baby Jesus Collection,” the story of two women (Baum, Puhich) setting up their wares at a bazaar who are joined by an evangelical salesman named Heber Creeper (Bateman), who carries with him a giant board full of baby Jesi (the play’s plural for “Jesus”) swiped from all kinds of nativity scenes. This play was the broadest and most farcical, and, again, it struggled to connect itself to a world that made sense. As with the earlier pieces, the difficulty was not that the world of the play was heightened, but that director Cheryl Ann Cluff failed to give it a sense of internal consistency. As a result, character motivations (especially when one character pulls out a gun) became muddy and unclear, and the humor suffered.
The fourth and final play was “Christmas in Meadows Manner.” Following an elderly man (Bateman) and woman (Puhich) in a retirement home who find their own way to celebrate (or not celebrate) Christmas together, this was the least comic, the most grounded, and the strongest play of the set, infused with real warmth and pain and concluding with the sweetest, most magical moment of the evening.
Christmas With Misfits offers up an alternative for Utah theatergoers this holiday season, and one that might be refreshing, but while, as the play points out, bitterness is sometimes the perfect taste, here it feels just as hollow as the sickly sweet hot chocolate, the jolly old elves and babes in mangers and candy canes and calories it’s sending up. Christmas With Misfits has interesting, exciting intentions, but, unfortunately, it only very sporadically lives up to them.
SPECIAL NOTE – The only tickets available for CHRISTMAS WITH MISFITS are Friday, December 19 at 4pm and Saturday, December 20 at 4pm and 8pm.