A Jew’s-eye view of Christmas
by Michael Dresdner
Last night at the Dukesbay Theater, a newish group called The Changing Scene NW presented Pavlina Morris’ direction of A Very Special Holiday Special, a collection of very short plays by Mark Harvey Levine.
The cast, consisting of Chelsea Pedro, Larry Chandler, Carol Weltschnig, Douglas Ernst, Betzy Miller, Karen Noyes, and Curtis Beech tried valiantly to eke some comedy out of what I would call a very flawed property.
Admittedly, this series of vignettes about Christmas and Channukah were based on plausible ideas, the sorts of things that if you just read the set up, you’d say “Sure, that could be quite funny.” Little of it was.
Based solely on this collection, I’d call Levine’s work superficial, ham-handed, unoriginal, sophomoric, and more than a little insulting to a wide swath of the populace. That, combined with the much printed information that his work is so widely presented (“over 1500 productions”) makes me wonder why this was mounted at all, since The Changing Scene, the group behind this show, claims their mission is to show “…new, original, unproduced, or innovative works.” This was none of the above.
I won’t go into tech, costumes, set, acting, or directing critiques here, since I strongly suspect (and know for a fact in several cases) that this was very far from the best work done by the director, tech crew, or cast. Frankly, some considerable talent was wasted on this property.
For example, the first play, “Oy Vey Maria,” has baby Jesus in a manger with his parents there, all being visited by the proverbial Three Wise Men, but also by Mary’s parents, a time-transplanted east coast suburban Jewish couple. Their portrayal is heavily laden with every trite Jewish stereotype, from a hokey New York/New Jersey accent to the mother whining incessantly, but bringing a brisket for the new parents. There’s a line between funny satire and insult, and this crosses it again and again.
“You Better Watch Out” is a riff on the so-called war on Christmas, with a Buddhist couple invaded by the Christmas police (in this case, military) who demand they decorate their apartment, and cringe whenever anyone says Happy Holidays. It ended oddly with Santa chiding the intruders for disrespecting the Buddhists, but then all three bowing with pressed hands and saying “Namaste,” which, as you probably know, is Hindu. Perhaps that’s supposed to be funny.
“A Very Special Hannukkah Special” has a Jew spinning a magic dreidle to make Hannukkah the dominant holiday instead of Christmas. Of course it all goes wrong, but not before the playwright slips in lines from classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” to make what I’d call a rather weak premise a bit more familiar. Some of the jokes seem aimed solely at other Jews, clearly not the mass audience in this area. For instance, the maker of the magic dreidle explains that to get your wish it must land on nun, prompting the line “Why would it land on a nun?” Nuun is one of the four Hebrew letters on a dreidle, and the joke relies on both knowing about dreidles and mispronouncing the letter as “nun.” Tell me honestly; do goyim (non-Jews) even get that joke?
Other vignettes have a talking Christmas tree who wants to go back to the forest, a lonely woman who can’t understand her dog and cat’s attempts to make her feel good, a drunk who accidentally destroys a child’s belief in Santa, and a parody of Les Miserables. See what I mean? These are potentially good topics, but most simply did not work.
What is most disturbing about this work, though, is the fact that it is childish humor that appears to be designed for sharing only among Jews, and only up until junior high. In short, it’s the sort of comedy that demeans both its targets and its creators.
A Very Special Holiday Special
Dec. 1 to Dec. 16, 2017
The Changing Scene (presented at the Dukesbay Theater)