Looking at Christmas
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
November 28, 2010
Looking at Christmas is a play about a holiday-themed puppy love that blooms between two New Yorkers on Christmas Eve. With most of New York at home, dreaming of sugar plums and cheaper rents, John and Charmian are alone, wandering the trail of Midtown's famed Christmas department store windows. Recently out of a job and worried about his future, John meets Charmian, a perky actress with an 0 for 26 audition record. As the two stare ahead at the red- and green-lit mannequins of Christmas past, present, and future, the windows come to life in a series of sketches.
As a romantic comedy, little here strikes us as fresh and original. John (Michael Micalizi) is unhappy with how his life is turning out. Forced to write vapid children's books and "successful" only as "an unpublished writer," the character never ventures far from the guy we first meet at the top of the play. John's mopey blandness is countered by Charmian's (Allison Buck) unceasing cheerfulness and "laugh at the rain" optimism. Any hope that Charmian does carry a darker side is dashed by a constant reminder that she is "just kidding." While not completely devoid of layers, we unfortunately only get to see brief flashes of John and Charmian's complexity—for example, when Charmian's smile is erased by her long-distance boyfriend's demand that she "make it" in six months or return home to the Midwest. While not without its charming, thoughtful moments, the John and Charmian portion of Looking at Christmas lacks the freshness and originality one hopes for in a scenario as well-trodden as "the holiday romance."
Where, I think, playwright Steven Banks's real voice is displayed is in the Christmas window sketches that break up the love story of John and Charmian. Banks is not only the head writer of the strange, brilliantly unique Spongebob Squarepants, but also the creator of Billy the Mime, whose irreverent, super-NSFW performances are funny both for their content and for Banks's upending of his chosen performance tradition. (Mimes are supposed to be trapped in boxes, not pretending to be Thomas Jefferson having his way with a slave.) It is this skillful defiance that makes this play's sketches so satisfying. As the Christmas windows come to life, we see an elf hitting on a flirtatious Ms. Claus, a sci-fi Scrooge, and a Joseph with serious doubts regarding what went on between the angel Gabriel and Mary. These moments are original, brash, and bursting with theatrical energy, a quality further enhanced by Gabriel Berry's amazing, larger than life costumes. The actors here squeeze every drop from this already strong material, with Jack Corcoran, Raul Sigmund Julia, and Betsy Lippitt standing out among the group. This is not the Christmas I grew up with, but having seen it, I sort of wish I had.
For a voice as nontraditional as Stephen Banks, the straight-ahead nature of John and Charmian's story is surprising, and ultimately, a disappointment. Not a let-down (though certainly a surprise) are the hilarious, well-acted sketches and costumes on display at the Flea. For that special someone who has everything, the irreverent but charming characters and occasional pokes at tradition in Looking at Christmas make this play a very good gift.