Another Round For 'Christmas On The Rocks' At TheaterWorks

It keeps on rockin' in the Christmas world: TheaterWorks' soused seasonal hit "Christmas on the Rocks" is back for another round.

The jolly, juiced-up comedy anthology, stocked with familiar (if fallen) faces from classic holiday stories, is a proven crowd-pleaser. TheaterWorks created it in 2013 and has nurtured it like a scrawny tree outside Snoopy's doghouse. Soon the script will be published and available to other theaters around the country. "Christmas on the Rocks" is the gift that keeps on giving, as long as the booze doesn't run out.

But the show's return this year was not a sure thing. When TheaterWorks announced its 2016-17 season back in May, "Christmas on the Rocks" was not mentioned.

It wasn't until the summer that Jenn Harris, who has done the female roles in "Rocks" for three of its four seasons, and Ronn Carroll, who has played the show's beleaguered bartender for all four, met with TheaterWorks Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero.

"We were all in the Berkshires doing different shows," Harris says in a phone conversation from a TheaterWorks rehearsal room last Friday. "We saw Rob, and he asked if we would do it again."

Matthew Wilkas, who joined the cast last year, was also brought back and chimes in on the phone call with Harris.

"This is an easy show for us to do," he says. "It's like a song I remember. I was shocked at how easily the lines were coming to me."

"Christmas on the Rocks" takes place in a humble drinking establishment on Christmas Eve. One at a time, a succession of classic characters from hallowed yuletide entertainments — Clara from "The Nutcracker," Hermey from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," a certain striped-shirted round-headed kid from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — enter the establishment and pour out their woes to a bemused bartender. These erstwhile founts of youthful enthusiasm are now older, wiser, drunken and depressed.

Each scene in the show was written by a different playwright. The talent pool is remarkable: John Cariani ("Almost Maine"); Jeffrey Hatcher ("Tuesdays With Morrie"); Jacques Lamarre ("I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti"); Theresa Rebeck ("Loose Knit"); Edwin Sanchez ("Trafficking in Broken Hearts"); and Jonathan Tolins ("Buyer & Cellar").

"Christmas on the Rocks," Wilkas says, "appeals in a broad sense, but it also celebrates a trashier, dirtier perspective on innocent characters." Harris adds that "it's Christmas rated R."

The cast is the same, but there is one big change in "Christmas on the Rocks" this year. Playwright Matthew Lombardo has taken his "Cindy Lou Who" scene out of the play so he can expand it into a full-length play. So Harris and Wilkas, who are close friends and have done a number of acting and writing projects together, came up with their own replacement scene. Harris won't give details other than that she's the star of it, the inspiration was the 1969 cartoon special "Frosty the Snowman," and it involves social media."

"It was so nice of Rob to let us write it," Harris says. "It's a real treat. You get to be a published playwright."

The performers already make a point of rethinking moments in some scenes to "make it fresh for ourselves," as Wilkas puts it. Having a whole new scene, of their own devising, to tweak before audiences is particularly exciting for them.

When not reinvigorating, and pickling with booze, a bar-full of beloved holiday icons each winter, Harris and Wilkas keep busy with other acting and writing gigs, some of which are decidedly less festive.

Wilkas recently filmed a horror film in Maine and reports that "I got brutally dismembered." Harris played "Sister Woman" in David Auburn's production of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at Berkshire Theatre Group. Together, the pair continue to work on their web series "New York is Dead." The first season, which had already been filmed at this time last year, has been edited and is being submitted to film festivals. The second season is being written.

Now Harris and Wilkas are, in a sense, on holiday. "We probably wouldn't have done this again without each other," Harris says sweetly. As perverse and bizarre as it may get, Wilkas declares that "Christmas on the Rocks" puts him "in the Christmas spirit."

CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS conceived and directed by Rob Ruggiero, runs Nov. 29 through Dec. 23 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Tickets are $30 to $55, $15 for student rush. 860-527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org.

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