The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
December 7, 2007
I feel sorry for Christmas. I really do. This interesting holiday—you could never call the birth of one of the world's most influential and divisive figures dull—has become so commercially overwhelmed that artists can feel instinctually forced to create pieces that run counter to the season's maudlin sentimentality—they're offered very little choice—and forget to explore the impulses that make them so angry in the first place.
Each play making up The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee at The Brick reflects that in some way. Each takes place on or around Christmas, in the present or not-too-distant past or future. Each takes a look at the strain and stresses the holidays can provide. Each play deals with the more dubious aspects of the season. In fact, the titular baby makes his first and and only appearance in the third play, Eric Bland's Mother Mary Come To Me. He is a plastic doll snuggled into a Baby Bjorn and his head is so small in this contraption you can barely see him.
I'm not saying that every play should have dealt with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Immaculate Conception and the cross. I didn't mind the baby appearing this way because his presence is less important than the idea he represents. His birth sets the play in motion. Given how lost the savior tends to get in the commercial shuffle of this or any season, I found this an apt metaphor. But I do wish the artists involved—all very smart and talented judging from the material – had delved more deeply into the stresses and reactions the season has to offer.
To their credit though, they do whip up a number of clever variations on events surrounding the holiday without forgetting its intended meaning. Robert Saietta's Uncomplicated, for example, acknowledges the holiday's fairy tale aspect by peopling his drama with characters named Peter, Wendy and Tink. And The Spirit of Christmas Passed, written by Jakob Holder, turns Dickens's story into that of a family yearning for the reappearance of their father's ghost. And Aaron Mark Schloff's The Revellers, appearing in segments throughout the evening, tells the story of a couple—Con and Key—dealing with relationship problems at a holiday party (if this doesn't seem usual, pay close attention to who or what these people might be). These subversions provide welcome relief from the usual holiday fare and allow us to reconsider the messages they are sending.
These situations are interesting and inherently dramatic but another misgiving with the evening comes not from the content but its execution. The acting is excellent across the board but the artists involved are not as successful in teasing the dramatic tensions from the material. Uncomplicated, as written, is anything but. It follows the story of Peter who breaks into his ex-girlfriend's apartment and finds her with her lesbian lover. The anger of this confrontation is dramatic but the events happen so quickly, I wasn't able to enjoy its sinister relation to Peter Pan and process its importance. There is also some nifty subversion at the core of The Revellers, but while it pays close attention in laying out the events, their development never builds.
The more unusual pieces in the bill have similar problems but their abnormalities make it easier to sustain interest. And ironically, the less mundane the situation, the more humane they become. In Matthew Freeman's Trayf, a lonely and increasingly drunken rabbi finds something close to salvation from an enthusiastic lobster's attempted conversion to Judaism. And in the bill's sole musical piece, Sincerely, Raven Harte, with book and lyrics by Emily Conbere and music by Michael Sendrow, a writer and his masked wife achieve an actual revelation and confront the distance between them.
In the evening's most successful piece, The Spirit of Christmas Passed, a family struggles to deal with the absence of its patriarch by interacting with a cardboard cutout bearing his likeness, spouting empty but optimistic clichés and skeet-shooting Santa Claus. The image of the daughter, played by Megan V. Tusing, clutching at the cutout of her father is one I won't soon forget, and the son's anger, played by Rufus L. Tureen, perfectly embodies a season of discontent.
I was sorry to have missed the first bill in The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee. There are enough intelligent ideas floating around in the second bill to keep a person interested and entertained. The audience laughed a lot and there was genuine enthusiasm throughout. But like the holiday it celebrates, questions and comments on, there is more to be extracted.