There seem to be two kinds of people in the world: those who have seen and loved the movie A Christmas Story and those who haven’t. I’m in the latter category. Maybe that explains why I was so underwhelmed by Philip Grecian’s stage version at the Arts Club. My rotten cold probably didn’t help either. Despite watching some of my favourite comic actors at work, I could only say “humbug!”
A Christmas Story is compiled from American writer Jean Shepherd’s memories of growing up in 1930s small-town Indiana. His adult persona in the play is Ralph (Terence Kelly), who takes us back to when he was nine and desperately wanted a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Adult Ralph’s narrative is interspersed with scenes of his younger self (Lucas Testini) with his family and a variety of school friends.
The movie was released in 1983 and the story is thick with Reagan-era values, its nostalgia thinly disguised as irony. Mom and Dad are good-natured, salt-of-the-earth, comic-strip characters. “The Old Man” (David Mackay) is obsessed with his car and curses a blue streak (in that benign comic %#&#!% way) when he gets a flat or the furnace starts to smoke or the obnoxious dogs next door steal the Christmas turkey off the table. Harried but efficient Mom (Melissa Poll) serves meat loaf and red cabbage for dinner 364 nights a year. Weirdo little brother Randy (Domenico DeMichina) has always “gotta go wee wee!”
This is an innocent world of Little Orphan Annie radio shows, a world where using the “F” word gets your mouth washed out with soap and the biggest daily threat is having your arm twisted by the local bully (who you can be sure will get his). BB guns are dangerous too, worries Mom: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” But what do Moms know. A boy’s gotta have his gun.
Kelly’s avuncular narrator does a nice job of keeping the story buoyant, but the dramatization is just not very funny. Mackay and Poll, two of the city’s finest comedians, try all kinds of shtick but little of it worked for me, although much of the opening night audience laughed hard. Director Katrina Dunn keeps the stage buzzing with comic business in various fantasy sequences involving the kids, but to little effect. Dawn Petten has the play’s funniest moments in a small role as the fussy schoolteacher.
Listening to audience reaction afterwards, I heard the word “cute” a lot. And it is, I guess, in a way. But with so many really good shows on stage this Christmas season, including the Arts Club’s own Beauty and the Beast re-opening next week, this kind of cute might be a tough sell.