It’s Christmas Eve. John (Michael Micalizzi), an aspiring novelist who worships F. Scott Fitzgerald, has just been fired from a job wherein he wrote trade paperbacks based on comic strips. He can’t decide whether to go to his friend’s party and get drunk or just go home. Charmian (Allison Buck) is an aspiring actress from the Midwest. New to the city, she intends to see all the major Christmas windows that night, when there are no crowds. They meet cute in front of Bloomingdale’s.
The developing romance in Looking at Christmas is sweet and predictable. A certain naturalism keeps it from being completely saccharine. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed that one day I’d come to New York and be a waitress! Just kidding,” Charmian deadpans. Each time a window is visited, the couple stands six feet from the audience in front of an empty platform, describing and commenting on the display as well as sharing a little more of their lives.
Black out. Lights come up on the window itself, two holiday mannequins smack in front of us come to life. And they have opinions – not only on the scene played out before them by Charmian and John, but on their own assigned roles. Here’s where humor has latitude. Though there are only glimpses of the kind of wit Steven Banks displays as the head writer for Spongebob Squarepants, the vignettes are clever and good natured.
There’s a randy Elf who lusts after a young-looking Mrs. Santa Claus. A great costume with curled-toe shoes under his knees puts his eye level at the hemline of her short skirt. “Santa brings happiness to millions,” she says, dismissing him. “Big deal,” he responds, “so do Shakespeare, Beethoven and Cher.” The Elf thinks short women are “creepy.” They banter. Black out.
We go from Bloomingdale’s to Barney’s, where a window featuring Scrooge and a Tiny Tim who looks like “Iron Man and Frodo’s lovechild” appears to represent “Charles Dickens on acid.” Scrooge thinks Tiny Tim got the best line. Other stores (names unmentioned, but why, when specificity adds interest?) contain a snowman (another wonderful costume) unequipped to deal with an offer too good to refuse; an Irish Country Christmas; Holiday 1944; familiar stories from O’Henry and Hans Christian Anderson; and finally, at Macy’s, Mary and Joseph, whose speech patterns are loose-lipped Shakespearean parodies. Nothing is as it appears to be.
Allison Buck is completely charming as Charmian. She plays fresh, open, quick and vulnerable without affectation. Her timing and physicality are both excellent. Michael Micalizzi’s John is, effectively, someone we all recognize. He brings credibility to the more cliché character’s plain-spoken persona, making him modestly sympathetic.
Among the other Bats (the young, resident company at The Flea), Betsy Lippitt plays three diverse characters with differentiating humor and comfortable stage presence. Her Russian “club girl” is nicely crafted. Holly Chou personifies a very little girl believably and imbues one slightly older with just the right amount of sulking resignation. Christian Adam Jacob’s Elf is artfully repellent.
The work of director Jim Simpson manifests itself most clearly in the eyes of his protagonists, whether they’re looking at window details or each other. Subtle observation and recognition are paramount to keeping the story alive.
Kate Sinclair Foster’s set of decorations on steroids perfectly frame the story; they verge on having attitude. (That’s a compliment.) Gabriel Berry’s costumes are extremely imaginative on what was clearly a limited budget. Berry depicts both fantasy and period with equal skill. Even Charmian’s quirky outfit has flair.
Playwright Banks has created a small holiday pastry. You know what you’re getting. It’s light, tart, has a creamy filling, doesn’t stuff you, and elicits a warm smile.
alixcohen @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Joan Marcus
Looking at Christmas
scheduled to close December 30 at time of publication
for tickets, visit www.theflea.org