That's The Spirit

There is a grisly side to Christmas, the side everyone suffers through with a forced smile and clenched teeth. Behind the compulsory cheer is always some difficult relative that no one wants to talk to or one traditional family activity that everyone hopes will finally be retired. Between the pressure to make dinner a success and the high expectations for tender, lasting memories, the holidays are ripe for family drama. And family drama is what popular English playwright, Alan Ayckbourn and director Laurie Eliscu deliver in the madcap holiday fare, Season’s Greetings, currently playing at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre.

The story opens in a traditionally decorated living room with a brightly lit tree in the corner, a mountain of presents beneath it and long strings of pine and red ribbon wrapped around the staircase banisters. The orderly Christmas setting provides a perfect backdrop for the disorderly chaos that is bound to ensue when the dysfunctional family and friends convene for the holidays.

Uncle Harvey (Lee Beebout) says he is buying the children guns for Christmas. He then tries to coax the evening’s host, Belinda (Francile Albright) to stop hanging candy canes and watch a shark fight on TV. From upstairs, an unhappy pregnant wife, Pattie (Morgan Reis) screams for her lazy husband, Eddie (Dan Via) to say goodnight to his kids before they forget he exists. Alcoholic aunt, Phyllis (Karin De La Penha) can be heard offstage breaking dishes in the kitchen where she is attempting to cook a lamb without blacking out. Meanwhile, her meek husband, Bernard (Byron Loyd) prepares for an annual puppet show that everyone annually dreads.

Frustrated in her loveless marriage to Neville (James Weatherstone) Belinda throws herself at Clive (Foster Davis), a polite young novelist who graciously accepts an invitation from his doughty secretary, Rachel (Jody Eisenstein) to stay with her family for the holidays. Belinda and Clive have immediate chemistry as implied from the Christmas music that starts to play the moment the two lay eyes on each other.

The stage is set for amusing light comedy but eventually turns into a more serious look at the failed dreams and miserable lives led by each character. As an English playwright, Ayckbourn is mostly known for writing plays that focus on the social structure of the suburban middle class in England. That being said, the observations found in Season’s Greetings about the hysteria of the holidays and the life crises it inspires are universally relatable.

However, there are some noticeable differences: the English celebrate Boxing Day and seem wired to maintain good manners even in the face of open resentment. Within this gathering there are some misunderstandings but no deep, dark secrets. Husbands and wives conduct their marital tiffs in the middle of the living room not caring who sees their dirty laundry being aired.

The story’s dramatic tension comes in wondering what each member of this unpredictable clan will do next. They overreact to small issues and underreact to large ones, making their actions impossible to see coming. Still, nothing could more unpredictable than the story’s final act, which includes a very surprising, unforeseeable twist.

When all is said and done, Season’s Greetings will not leave viewers longing for the holidays. In fact, this is the kind of play that makes you want to skip the holidays altogether and get right to the part where you return to your normal, relative-less lives. However, it does lower the bar of expectations for what a successful family gathering should be. By Season’s Greetings standards, as long as everyone leaves the dinner table in one piece, you have officially survived the holidays.

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