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TheatreWorks Stages Spirited and Hilarious Holiday Comedy

By Jaime Ferris, The Housatonic Times


December 'tis the season when even the nastiest of killjoys experiences a seasonal change of heart, when hearty refrains of "season's greetings" roll easily past the lips. And it's usually a time of year when theaters prepare themselves to either stage traditionally sentimental Christmas chestnuts, or go with a finger-in-the-eye mockery of schmaltziness under the mistletoe. Alan Ayckbourn's "Season's Greetings" is a little of both, a sharp, witty, hilarious and dysfunctional holiday farce.

TheatreWorks New Milford showcases its Christmas chutzpah with a spirited production directed by Glenn R. Couture. And while "Season's Greetings" may not wrap everything up nicely with a bright red bow, it is a wonderful treat for theatergoers desiring a break from the Yuletide hoopla, offering the priceless gift of laughter—something we all need this year.

"Season's Greetings" starts out conventionally enough as family and friends gather for the holidays, but this seemingly ordinary celebration quickly goes awry with familial dysfunction, riotous miscommunication, quarreling spouses, culinary mishaps, antic violence and an excess of alcoholic frivolity beginning Christmas Eve, and continuing on through Boxing Day.

The Bunkers seem like any other family, as Belinda and Neville Bunker (Tracy Hurd and Viv Berger), welcome friends and relatives to their picturesque English home on Christmas Eve, the story unfolding within Mr. Couture's beautifully designed set decked out for the holidays.

Neville has forgotten to buy Belinda a gift and prefers to tinker with the electronics in the home—a gag that plays out riotously at the end of act one—while Belinda busies herself with household and hostess duties. Their guests include Uncle Harvey (Matt McQuail), who is glued to the TV for his annual action flick marathon; Neville's friend Eddie (Tom Libonate) and his wife, Pattie (Mikki Harkin), who are at each other's throats; and Bernard (Philip Cook), an incompetent doctor who rehearses an unintentionally hysterical puppet show while his wife, Phyllis (Janice Connor), gets drunk on the cooking wine.

While this is already plenty of comical fodder, the ultimate catalyst for the show's most outlandish disruption is the lone stranger in the house—Clive (Nicholas Pollifrone), a rising young novelist who has been invited by Belinda's love-struck sister Rachel (Alison Bernhardt). The young writer plans on wooing the young girl, until his attention is quickly diverted to Belinda.

By the time Boxing Day arrives, the season's tidings of "deck the halls" comically transform to refrains of "wreck the halls," with festive slapstick and uproarious situations more akin to a three-ring circus than holiday festivities.

Among the most humorous scenes is the catastrophic—and unintentionally funny—dry run of Bernard's puppet show of "The Three Little Pigs." Philip Cook portrays this childless, incompetent doctor—the latter point brought to hilarious realization during the show's climax—perfectly. The eccentric doctor can hardly do anything right, and Mr. Cook's portrayal truly delivers.

Equally entertaining is Janice Connor as Bernard's sloshed but sympathetic wife, Phyllis, described by the family as "peculiar" when she first married Bernard, but now "completely loopy." Bernard's play-by-play commentary about her calamitous mishaps in the kitchen are humorous, but Ms. Connor steals the spotlight with her drunken escapades later on. Her slapstick comedy is seamless, producing some of the funniest moments of the evening.

Matt McQuail is flawless as crotchety Uncle Harvey, a security expert with a knife strapped to his leg at all times—just in case. A Scrooge at heart, he spends his time watching bloodthirsty action flicks, and later delivers some of the show's funniest lines as Harvey berates Bernard's puppet show. But as the celebration advances, his grip on sanity loosens, and no one escapes his comic wake.

Perhaps most evident in the production is Mr. Ayckbourn's ability to highlight our human frailties, which seem heightened during-the holidays. Here, his characters are either at each other's throats or on the verge of committing adultery.

The domestic battle of the sexes is delightfully portrayed by Tom Libonate and Mikki Harkin as Eddie and his wife, a very pregnant Pattie. The arduous relationship between husbands and wives never seems to change, and Mr. Libonate and Ms. Harkin really capture this nuance with outrageous humor.

Displaying remarkable onstage chemistry are Tracy Hurd as Belinda, the besieged wife and mother who is annoyed that her husband, Neville, portrayed wonderfully by Viv Berger, never does anything to help around the house. She can't help but wonder if her inattentive husband shares anything with her other than their home and children. While the role could become melodramatic, Ms. Hurd's portrayal is touchingly amusing.

She is evenly matched by Mr. Berger's portrayal of Neville, who, like his friend Eddie, would much rather hit happy hour at the bar around the corner than do housework.

Bringing things full circle—and setting the chaos in action—are Alison Bernhardt as Rachel and Nicholas Pollifrone as Clive. Ms. Bernhardt captures the pathos of the messed-up and tearful 20-something who acts more like a lovesick teenager when Clive arrives, while Mr. Pollifrone convincingly conveys Clive's anxiety around this dysfunctional family. As the story progresses, his disquiet only escalates as pandemonium ensues and the plot reaches an unexpected climax.

As American humorist Frank McKinney Hubbard observed, "Next to a circus, there ain't nothing that packs up and tears out faster than the Christmas spirit." This is certainly true in "Season's Greetings," in its acerbic and timeless festive jesting. Mr. Couture has, indeed, chosen the perfect ingredients for this theatrical holiday feast. Just be sure to loosen your belt for the belly laughs.

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