nytheatre.com review by Nicole Higgins
July 25, 2009
Christmas Guest, by James O'Connor, directed by Leigh Hile, takes us to a Christmas Party doomed by cheerful denial, drunken revelations, and the return of an unwelcome visitor. In one of the opening scenes Carmen (Jessica Rendon) tells her boyfriend, Michael (Rick Cekovsky), "It's going to be the best Christmas ever." For those of you unfamiliar, this is (I believe) a reference to Ordinary People. It's a movie (maybe THE movie) about a dysfunctional family unraveling over the holidays. It's also a signal to prepare to be unsettled. What follows is perhaps a very accurate depiction of what would happen if your nemesis, your one fear, THE person in the world about whom you are the most ambivalent, shows up on your doorstep on Christmas Eve.
The play takes place in Michael's apartment. A nervous perfectionist, somewhat proud of his domain, we see him alone on stage whistling as he puts the finishing touches on his tree. We learn as he practices his delivery (mimed) that he intends to propose on bended knee this very evening. Everything is going just swell. Mrs. McCaffrey ( winningly performed by Kelly Taylor), a cheerful older neighbor who is perhaps in the early stages of Alzheimer's, is invited to what would have been a very intimate family gathering, including upstairs neighbor and sister to Michael, Faith (Anna Winthrop).
Cue disaster. Have you been unable to explain your bad behavior? Have you ever behaved badly in front of the one person you most want to impress? Have you ever had your power suddenly subverted in your own home, surrounded by people who just don't or won't understand the situation from your point of view? Well, poor Michael is in just such a pickle. His Kryptonite arrives at his door, and without a beat is carelessly invited in by his girlfriend. What follows is a nightmare of tension as Thomas, the guest (Stuart Aion—compelling in a tough role), delivers racial epithet after racial epithet, at first reminding me of the harmless Archie Bunker, but then with repetition becoming more and more disconcerting. Heightening the effect was the audience's easy laughter at his statements, probably because of the skill of the delivery, but it left me hoping that the laughter I heard left others uncomfortable too.
Tension careens to a drunken dinner, at which Mrs. McCaffrey's cheerfulness is revealed as massive denial, Carmen the caretaker (the character is a nurse) deals out pop psychology with the delicacy of a sledgehammer, and the siblings Michael and Faith fall back into the roles they've played since birth of anxious control and passivity. Finally the evening ends as abruptly and tragically as it began with hope and cheer.
The aftermath of the night, some three days later in the timeline of the play, left me with a question. Is the decision Michael and Carmen come to born of eye-opened hope, or a tangled mess of desperate willing blindness?