(Stephen Spencer, at rear, and Charles Kartali)
Imagine this: A new holiday play is built around the shared flashback structures of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. It features an omniscient narrator, a curmudgeonly/desperate central character, and many carbon copies of other characters from those two iconic works, including one mash-up—a wise-beyond-his-years little boy with a lame leg who is a pint-sized Clarence with a Tiny Tim impairment.
Gentle reader, you would be forgiven if you suspected that this was a set-up for a wild, no-holds-barred parody of Christmas clichés. But no, this is all played with a straight face and nary a burp of genuine wit in A Carol for Cleveland, now at the Cleveland Play House.
Written by two local luminaries (script by Eric Coble, based on a novella by Les Roberts) the play is 90-minute slide down a razor blade of treacly sentimentality and tone-deaf lunges at a tale of redemption.
It’s enough to make Santa abandon his toyshop and go out back to suck down a bottle of Wild Turkey and pass out in a reindeer stall.
As a transplanted Clevelander, Coble has achieved much success as a playwright, with productions blossoming all over the country and a couple more pending on and off Broadway. And I say huzzah for him! But that doesn’t excuse the watery, un-spiked eggnog that he’s serving up in this dreadful concoction.
Set in the late 1970s, Ed Podolak is an unemployed steel worker from Pennsylvania who is looking for a job in Cleveburg. And we see in flashbacks how Ed’s happy life progressed through marriage and children until the economy hit the skids.
Now, Ed is alone on Public Square on Christmas Eve, and he steals some cash from a Salvation Army bucket. But little Charlie Torbic sees what he does, calls him on it, and then invites Ed to dine with his parents and sister.
Even a not-too-bright eight-year-old can guess where all this is going, so I won’t burden you with the obvious. The entire enterprise lacks a shred of dramatic tension, and on top of that it is spoon-fed to the audience by a narrator, dubbed This Guy (a game Stephen Spencer), who tries to capture the folksy vibe of the Stage Manager in Our Town.
But here the trick doesn’t work, coming off more like a playwright's crutch. So This Guy becomes a narrator/stalker, hanging around the fringes of scenes and peering in through windows. And the identity of This Guy, which is meant to be the curtain-closing surprise, will only be so for those who have never seen a movie or play before, in their entire lifetimes.
Coble’s script doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve, it blows chunks of it in your face. A jolly fellow nicknamed Fez (because on his head he wears a…oh, never mind) actually says, “I make life better for those around me.” Okay, Fezziwig, thanks for the clue.
And a jolly Mr. Torbic presides over a jolly dinner while his jolly African-American neighbors George and Daisy and their daughter Ann establish themselves as the whitest black family to ever stride across a stage.
Indeed, everyone is jolly in this Christmas clusterfreak, except for the temporarily grumpypants Ed. And even though Charles Kartali gives his all in that role, he is never able to squirm out of the stereotyped hammerlock that Coble forces on him.
The same is true of director and CPH Associate Artistic Director Laura Kepley. One hopes she is soon give another play to direct that isn’t filled to overflowing with the theatrical equivalent of high fructose corn syrup.
Sentiment is enriching and enlightening when it is earned, as it is in those works that C for C leans so heavily upon. When it isn’t earned , it grates. Sorry, Zuzu, even though recorded bells are pealing at the end of this one, no angels are taking flight.
A Carol for Cleveland
Through December 23 at the Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000