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Christmas goes haywire for a band of merry misfits

THEATER REVIEW: "Season's Greetings" at Northlight Theatre ★★★

Chris Jones

7:43 PM CST, November 20, 2011

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If you're of the view that adults getting together with family for the festive season usually behave like children, then Alan Ayckbourn's "Season's Greetings" will offer a few confirmatory laughs. Herein, an extended family of middle-class Brits get together for some quality time together over Christmas and Boxing Day, only for things to devolve into a farcical mix of adolescent husbands, authoritarian seniors, neurotic singles and at least one tipsy married woman behaving very, very badly under the Christmas tree.

To some extent, "Season's Greetings," which was written in 1980 and is now in holiday production at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, is a retro English farce with a holiday spin. Acts close after big, physical set-pieces, and the hilarious centerpiece of the show is the dress rehearsal of a horrendous puppet show performed by a bitter, angry man for whom hanging on to the tradition of entertaining the visiting kiddies has taken on a gravitas comparable to the annual re-enactment of the Nativity itself.

Ayckbourn uses an outsider — a novelist who has come to the party as a guest of the mousy spinster of this particular crew — as the catalyst for the comedic action. Once you put a stranger stuck in this otherwise familiar landscape, you've got the endlessly malleable device of various family members doing things to the mostly passive young chap: impressing him, trying to sleep with him, aiming a bullet at his body. All sorts of Christmas fun.

But "Season's Greetings" was written just as Ayckbourn's plays were turning much darker and more Chekhovian. Our insecurities — professional, romantic, sexual — have been the stuff of farce for a century, but Ayckbourn's pervasive picture here is of those leading lives of quiet suburban desperation, their true appetites and longings ready to explode at any moment from deep inside the multi-layered wrappings of polite Christmas interaction.

In the best moments of BJ Jones' adroit and funny production — and there are many such moments — you start to wonder why our holiday rituals are so clearly designed to prevent us from doing what we actually want to do, with whomever we actually want to do it with. And the older you get, the worse that gets. Heck, family parties can make a day at the office feel good.

You see that painful paradox clearly here in the two fine comedic performances that dominate this show. Heidi Kettenring — whose unerring capacity for immersive, provincial Britishness should qualify her for a series of English toffee commercials — plays Belinda, the one nominally throwing this party and the most empathetic character of the bunch. Surrounded (mostly) by men behaving badly, Kettenring's too-smart-for-her-own-good Belinda finally pops off her buttons and decides that she deserves a better class of present. Alas, her Christmas coitus is very much interruptus (in this case by Christmas lights with a mind of their own). Such is her lot. Such is her not-so-merry Christmas. You feel for her.

Equally fine, and equally empathetic, is Francis Guinan as Bernard, that grumpy puppeteer. Guinan innately understands that the puppet show is just a metaphor for his character's insecurities — it is about all he has left, and thus the stakes of his play-within-a-play telling of The Three Little Pigs, the marionette version, are no less than for Willy Loman or King Lear. It is a formidable performance — funny, but also deeply sad in the way it understands the anger that can well up in us when we're denied our even trivial level of influence in the world. Who has not been right there with Bernard, or with Rob Riley's Harvey, an old warrior-curmudgeon railing against his own marginalization? And who does not feel it most over the holidays?

The rest of this cast (John Byrnes, Amy J. Carle, Steve Haggard, Maggie Kettering, Matt Schwader and Ginger Lee McDermott) are all stellar comic players.

I wouldn't say every moment in this "Season's Greetings" works. The main challenge of this piece is to ensure that the outlandish physical business remains entirely credible, and the timing feels a little off at the end of both acts, when things need to happen much faster and with more veracity. It's also tough to track your way through the house in Keith Pitts' set, where some key walls and spatial delineations are, problematically, left to your imagination.

But then, all the really hot stuff happens in sight of the tree. Just like it does at your house.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Dec. 18

Where: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Tickets: $25-$60 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.org