Beasley's Christmas Party
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
December 7, 2008
Holiday shows come in all shapes and sizes—from glitzy pageantry to irreverent farce—and the type of holiday show a theatre company produces can be an interesting window into that company's artistic soul. Now in its ninth season, Keen Company's mission statement stresses the idea of "generosity of spirit" and "an earnest intent" as two of the guiding principles for the type of theatre it produces, and in Beasley's Christmas Party it has found a wonderful exemplar of these ideals. Adapted to the stage from a little-known Booth Tarkington story from the turn of the last century, Beasley's Christmas Party is a tale of good-hearted Christmas cheer that might be a perfect respite for those seeking shelter from the waves of commercialism and cynicism that roll in this time of year.
The story begins when our narrator, a well-meaning political reporter named Booth, has just recently arrived at a new job covering politics in the town of Wainwright—the capitol of an undisclosed Midwestern state. Taking lodging at the respectable boarding house of Mrs. Apperwaithe—home also to the beautiful Miss Apperwaithe—Booth takes both a personal and professional interest in the Apperwaithes' next door neighbor, a popular though very taciturn politician named David Beasley. Beasley, whose popularity seems to be inversely proportional to his talkativeness, has been acting strangely of late, spending time conversing with invisible people with funny names, and Booth sets out to discover the mysteries that might explain away Beasley's erratic behavior.
C.W. Munger's adaptation is pretty much Tarkington's words from the original work, so the production as a whole has an easy-going storytelling quality to it. As it turns out, we learn Beasley's secret about halfway through the show, and while it is the hook that draws us in, suspense is not what ultimately drives this piece. Instead, Beasley's Christmas Party is a good-natured Christmas tale about small town values in America as Tarkington imagined them a hundred years ago, and the chronological distance between now and then gives just the right pinch of nostalgia to an already charmingly sentimental tale—a tale that is both romantic and playful but which never crosses over into cloying Christmas clichés. All in all it's a great yarn with some depth to it as well—so credit must be given to Keen Company first and foremost for bringing such an engaging Christmas classic to the stage.
The production as a whole veers towards being a little too breezy at times, and the very short running time and a lean three-person cast make it feel in some ways a little on the bare-bones side as well. All in all, though, Beasley's Christmas Party is a very rich experience, and much of this has to do with the fantastic actors that director Carl Forsman has assembled. Tony Ward has a likeable affability as the ubiquitous narrator Booth, while Christa Scott-Reed and Joseph Collins do a great job tackling the daunting task of filling out the various other inhabitants of the colorful town of Wainwright. Collins, in particular, has his work cut out for him as the title character of Beasley, Beasley's rival Peck, and Beasley's friend Dowden (to name just his major roles), and by the end of the play he is carrying out entire conversations with himself and switching roles so rapidly that you might almost be wishing for one or two more actors to be added into the mix.
Collins, however, pulls it all off marvelously, and all three inhabit their roles with great delineation and enough conviction that you can still get fully immersed in the world of Wainwright, and not just marvel at their skill in carrying out what could otherwise be just a cost-saving gimmick. In some ways the approach just adds to the sense of off-handed whimsy that makes this show so charming, and everyone seems to have so much fun in the process that the presentation is imbued with an almost magical feel to it. In terms of cozy heart-warming holiday cheer, it might be hard to do better than this example of good old Christmas storytelling.