Hoist A Holiday Cocktail As A Fresh 'Christmas On The Rocks' Turns Five

‘Christmas on the Rocks” is the holiday gift that keeps on giving. The show, celebrating its fifth year of merrymaking at TheaterWorks, has maintained a faithful fan base while bringing in a host of new admirers every year. Extra performances had to be added to the monthlong run this year.

The same two actors, Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, have starred in “Christmas on the Rocks” for four of those five years, but other changes offer special motivation to revisit the show. Of the seven one-acts in this comedy anthology, only five were with the show when it started. (One of those, written by Matthew Lombardo and starring Cindy Lou Who from “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” has been expanded into a full-length play of its own called “Who’s Holiday,” currently running off-Broadway.) So if you haven’t seen “Christmas on the Rocks” in the past two seasons, you’ve missed two whole new scenes.

“Christmas on the Rocks,” conceived and directed by TheaterWorks’ Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero, takes the sweet kid characters from classic Christmas TV specials and asks contemporary American playwrights to imagine these adorable tykes at middle-age drowning their sorrows in a dive bar on Christmas Eve. The general impression is that those long-ago holiday adventures were the peak times of their lives — and everything’ has gone downhill from there. All the male characters (except the bartender) are played by Wilkas, all the female ones by Harris. The kindly bartender listens to all these wintertime woes, and therein lies another change: Tom Bloom has taken on the role played by Ronn Carroll.

Bloom’s a more involved barkeep than the laid-back Carroll was. He’s also friendlier-seeming, though in other ways more imposing. Where Carroll took a backseat to Harris and Wilkas’ carryings-on, Bloom is more in the thick of it.

For most of the sketches, “Christmas on the Rocks” creates its own warped reality. The bartender is more bemused than baffled by the wild characters who visit his establishment on Christmas Eve. He’s even familiar with the stories of some of them. In the case of Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” there’s an iconic leg-shaped lamp right there on the counter. When Tiny Tim stops by, the bartender actively debates the limping malcontent on the meaning and importance of his patron Scrooge’s conversion from miserly to merry.

That “Christmas Carol” bit, by prolific playwright and TV writer and producer Theresa Rebeck, is perhaps the emotionally deepest of all the “Christmas on the Rocks” scenes. The silliest, and also the cruelest, scene is the “Frosty the Snowman” riff “My Name is KAREN!,” written by Harris and Wilkas and added to the line-up a year ago. In it, a manic Karen (from the 1966 Rankin/Bass animated “Frosty the Snowman” special, easily the least beloved and least “classic” of the stories embraced by “Christmas on the Rocks”) ties the bartender to a chair with Christmas tree lights then sets up an impromptu podcast to castigate her former snowman pal.

The souring of relationships is a recurring “Christmas on the Rocks” theme. Hermie has had a falling out with Rudolph. Ralphie’s parents divorced. Another common element: the special cocktails cartoon characters are prone to order. For Hermie, it’s a “Root Canal — one part root beer and 99 parts Novocaine.”

The playlet that’s the whole package, that exemplifies what “Christmas on the Rocks” can be, is “Still Nuts About Him” by Edwin Sanchez, in which Clara of “The Nutcracker” fame complains about her disappointing prince of a husband. The piece is a great workout for Jenn Harris, who rocks a funny Russian accent but also indulges in highly physical ballet shtick.

Hartford playwright Jacques Lamarre, who now has two separate pieces in “Christmas on the Rocks,” also has an innate sense of the special time and place of the show’s winter fantasy. Lamarre’s new contribution (replacing Jonathan Tolins’ “Miracle on 34th Street” scene) introduces an all-grown-up Zuzu from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” guilt-ridden that her revelation of “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings” has unleashed a torrent of celestial beings because “it’s too damn easy to get your wings and I exposed that loophole.”

Lamarre’s earlier, and still great, contribution to “Christmas on the Rocks” is “Merry Christmas, Blockhead,” which ends the show and is the only scene where we see Harris and Wilkas onstage at the same time. When Charlie Brown enters the bar, the bartender greets him by asking “Peanuts?,” gesturing to the bowl of snacks on the counter. Wilkas’ impression of Charles Schulz’ good ol’ roundheaded hero is in a special category, finding elements from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that other mimics have never explored. Wilkas spreads his arms wide, shouts to the heavens, then immediately drops his head and hugs his body in a depressive shutdown. His wife doesn’t understand him; she’s Lucy.

“Christmas on the Rocks” has staked out special territory in the holiday theater landscape. It’s a show for the cynical, for the culturally inundated, for those who are too cool for yule. It sprinkles hope and joy and redemption among its many emotions, but the show can also caustic and cold. If you’ve ever had a moment of realization after a self-pitying night at a dingy bar, well, here are seven of them to relate to. Especially if you’re a cartoon.

CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS runs through Dec. 23 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.; with Friday performances at 8 p.m. on Dec. 15 and at both 6 and 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 22. There are also performances Dec. 16 at 4 p.m. and Dec. 17 at 6:30 p.m. $30 to $65, $15 for student rush. 860-527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org.

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