"What would Christmas be without bad taste?" asks a character in one of two short plays currently on view at the Westside Rep. "Just another day of the year," she concludes, which would seem to imply that every other day on the calendar is filled with good taste, which hardly accounts for the days In The Spirit is running at Westside Rep. Then again, the bad taste in Not On Christmas Eve (the second of the evening's plays) is intentional, and intermittently quite funny. Bad taste, sure, but with an asterisk.
Eve opens on Paula (Patrice Valenti), who is planning to break up with her boyfriend Paul tonight (Dominick Costello), the bomb scheduled to be dropped over crêo;me brulée at Cafe des Artistes. (As an adage, "produce what you know" has never quite taken off like "write what you know"; kudos to Westside Rep for rediscovering the notion!) Only an Upper West Side relationship could be jeopardized by the kind of faults Paul possesses. He is, for example, a chronic redecorator of their apartment. (As a child, Paul apparently "read white sale catalogs like other kids read coloring books.") His philosophy of life? "Engage your passion and your life will unfold as neatly as freshly pressed sheets."
In short, Paul is, uh, rather obviously ... well, Paul is the sort of character Paula would never have fallen for in the first place. But let's be television about this, and not ask for too much logic.
Speaking of TV, Paul's parents (Paul Richard Kessler and Mary Barto) arrive unexpectedly, but on-cue, a few minutes into the play. According to sitcom formula, the play should then have cut to a commercial; but then one might have missed Kessler and Barto's hilarious caricature of Jersey parents (Barto costumed in spectacular tackiness). Regrettably, Ost's script periodically falls victim to a similar tackiness and corn, as witness the following wink-wink exchange re the Christmas tree: Paul: Dad, have you been rearranging my balls? Dad: I didn't like the way they were hanging ... the big balls always hang lower.... (Not to lapse into theatre-critic lamentation mode, but what has happened to that once-honorable subgenre, testicular humor? Were Joe Orton's labors all in vain?)
Still, the performances were all winning - especially those of Valenti and Marcia Iris Feldman (as a "reality-challenged" homeless woman) - and DeVita's direction was snappy.
Crisp direction is the chief reason to see The Body Shop, the other part of this double bill. A musical which takes place in Heaven already has two strikes against it; here, the third comes courtesy an unimaginative score. Angel #5682 (Francine Lobis) is responsible for matching old souls to new bodies and sending the package back to Earth. Some might find this kind of work fulfilling - at least she's recycling - but not our heroine. And so, in the grand tradition of musical leads past and present, she sings an "I want" song, "Where Do I Fit In?" Lobis's voice was lovely, her acting fine, but the melodies she was given are over-familiar and derivative, a choice that nevertheless permits some interesting moral conclusions. If these are the kinds of songs they sing in Heaven, it's a safe bet that (1) Cole Porter didn't go to Hell, and (2) he'll someday be joined by Cy Coleman, along with whoever wrote the theme from The Jeffersons. (Also featuring Paul Augustine in fine voice, D.P. Duffy, and musical direction by Daniel Ezell.)
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Copyright 1997 Scott Vogel