Holiday Strife

The phrase “Christmas in July” might evoke the charm of the 1940 Preston Sturges film or just the promise of holiday treats in a hot month. But it also comes to mind thanks to Sandra Goldmark’s splendid set for Lisa Ebersole’s strange new comedy-drama. The theme starts in the foyer, with a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, and extends into the pleasantly air-conditioned theater, where a maître d’ welcomes the audience to an elegant dining room at a resort hotel. The stage restaurant is decorated with a chintz swag, evergreens, red bows, and various Christmas ornaments. There’s a table at the center, and tables along the sides, where some audience members reside in ringside seats (for a slightly higher admission, which includes wine). There’s high-tone piano music appropriate to a five-star restaurant (at a West Virginia resort). Yet, although the date is Dec. 29 of this year, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about the bizarre happenings at the table where the Leroy family is dining.

At the center table two siblings await their parents: the forbearing, sanguine Jackie (nicely understated by Haskell King) and the easily irritated Kate (Lisa Ebersole, who is also the playwright). Father Joe (Buck Henry) arrives first: He shows up with some scraping on his face from his shaving, which Kate attends to, and the three begin to pick at one another while awaiting mother Kitty. Finally Kate goes to look for Kitty (Holland Taylor), who shortly after enters barefoot. Then things take a very odd turn: Their waiter (a silent, unruffled David Rosenblatt) delivers a note that says the Wilsons have kidnapped Kate.

Who are the Wilsons? Some family the Leroys know. Are they gangsters? Do the Leroys have terrible secrets? Is that why father Joe possesses a gun that upsets Kate? Questions abound, and the evening consists of little more than orchestrated entrances and exits by the Leroy family to find one another—Kate turns up eventually—and squabbles among the family members.

Kitty badgers Jackie to have a salad and insists on ordering a fruit salad even though Jackie doesn’t like fruit. Kate is shocked to hear that her father owns a gun. The family greets the restaurant owner, Chester (a jovial Keith Randolph Smith, who looks like a black Daddy Warbucks). The Bible-quoting Chester and his sister Tammy have been friends of the family since Jackie and Kate were children, it appears, and Chester may even carry a torch for Kitty.

Ebersole captures the elements of family life well—the small irritations and capitulations and overprotectiveness that ebb and flow in such relationships, and the alternating attempts to avoid difficult topics and the irresistible urge to pick at old wounds. Kitty, for instance, feels guilty about a mysterious incident of her abandonment of Kate as a child that Ebersole refers to obliquely.

It’s easy to see why the roles attracted such accomplished actors as Taylor and Henry. Taylor has mastered the overbearing mother in her years on Two and a Half Men, and she can make comic hay—even a haystack—with a line like “You’re an idiot.” She has superb timing for the sparse humor, but she also has moments of vulnerability as Kitty: the character’s forgetting her shoes seems to be an early indicator of memory problems, and Kitty frequently turns on a dime from insults to pleasantries.

She has a nice, tentative scene with Kate, and it’s clear they don’t communicate well. Meanwhile, Henry makes Joe irascible and obsessively attached to the familiar—his usual soup, drink and dinner, without variation—in the way of many elderly people. Yet he also has a good deal of charm and brings sympathy to Joe. Ultimately, though, the play feels like a lot of Sturm und Drang without a payoff.

Director Andrew Grosso paces it well, although all of the exits and entrances cannot escape feeling schematic, and each actor registers strongly (though perhaps the author least successfully). Grosso also keeps the tone of the family frictions at a reasonable level, one that doesn’t require Chester to ask the family to leave, for instance.

But the downside is that the play occasionally feels underpowered, and its ambiguities become frustrating. One feels that a lot happens but that none of it is genuinely momentous. Ebersole doesn’t seem to have a message other than that family ties are confusing and difficult, and her use of absurdism—Do the Wilsons represent all outsiders? What’s that kidnapping threat all about?—gives the play a quirky sensibility but leaves any message in it lingering in obscurity.

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