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'Christmas On Rocks' A Strong Comedy Cocktail With Dash Of Bitters

In its fourth season of pub-crawling Christmas Eve confessions, TheaterWorks' original one-act anthology "Christmas on the Rocks" can still knock 'em back. It's a well-oiled comedy cocktail with a dash of bitters.

It creates a loose, freewheeling environment where the quick draining of a glass or an emphatic Hartford reference can get a loud, hooting laugh from a primed audience.

This fresh holiday tradition for jaded modern theatergoers continues through Dec. 23.

"Christmas on the Rocks" merrily mocks the sacred seasonal texts "A Christmas Carol" and "The Nutcracker" as well as modern classics such as "The Christmas Story," "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." One popular piece from "Christmas on the Rocks" past, written by Matthew Lombardo and featuring Cindy Lou Who from "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," is gone this year, replaced by a rather violent "Frosty the Snowman"-inspired riff on social media and seasonal stress written by the show's co-stars, Matthew Wilkas and Jenn Harris.

The roster of playwrights for this impetuous holiday drinking party is impressive: John Cariani, the short-form craftsman behind "Almost, Maine"; "Buyer and Cellar" monologue-spinner Jonathan Tolins; Jeffrey Hatcher, a prolific adapter of classics from Sherlock Holmes to "Turn of the Screw"; the wistful, whimsical Theresa Rebeck; edgy Edwin Sánchez; and, in a final twist of bitter lemon with heaps of sugary sweetness, Hartford's own Jacques Lamarre.

Wilkas and Harris alternate scenes. He is an eye-patch-wearing Ralphie, a still-scruffy Tiny Tim and a grief-stricken Charlie Brown. She is Susan (the Natalie Wood role from "Miracle on 34th Street," now a high-strung real-estate agent), Karen (Frosty's former friend) and Clara. Both players perform with a manic energy, jumping on the bar counter or spitting their lines as if they're in the midst of a snowstorm. They can calm down, but they're mostly wound up — smashing nutcrackers and prancing like reindeer.

All these characters interact in turn with a kindly bartender played with shot-pouring aplomb by Ronn Carroll. Sometimes he's befuddled, sometimes he's brainy, a folksy psychoanalyst with a dishrag. At one point, he's bound and gagged. Carroll is able to build a fluid, coherent character out of all the various things he's asked to do. He's the foundational rock of "Christmas on the Rocks." He calms these Christmas Eve barflies into moments of contemplation, regret and renewal.

It's some kind of Christmas miracle that these pieces fit together so cleanly. There's no need for an overarching framework or transition scenes. Each scene exists in its own reality: Cariani's updated Ralphie explains that his fiction-based family was "so beloved that we became real, like the friggin' Velveteen Rabbit," while Rebeck's grizzled-survivor Tiny Tim is bemused that the bartender could have heard of him. Most of the characters don't care why they're in this bar at all, other than to have a drink and share their woes. 

What the plays all share is the sense of a hope and promise still evident beneath the weary exteriors. The conceit of "Christmas on the Rocks," as conceived and directed by TheaterWorks' Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero, is that these once-innocent children have become jaded, depressed adults, unable to get over the enchanted youthful adventures that ended up defining their lives.

But another crucial aspect of that same concept is that these self-loathing grown-up and worn-down Christmas icons can still be coaxed back to being their best selves — the ones that befriended misfits, stood up to bullies, brought families together. 

"Christmas on the Rocks" is a furious snowball fight of comedy that, without becoming silent or holy, finds a moment to celebrate peace on Earth and good will to all.

CHRISTMAS ON THE ROCKS runs through Dec. 23 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Tickets are $30 to $55, $15 for student rush. 860-527-7838,

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