Los Angeles Theater Review: BOB’S HOLIDAY OFFICE PARTY (Pico Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on December 8, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

BOB’S HOLIDAY OFFICE FIASCO

Bob’s Holiday Office Party, now in its 17th season, is basically a fifteen-minute Carol Burnett Show-type sketch stretched out to about 100 minutes. And unless a new director is brought on board, last night will remain my first and last experience at the party. For roughly the first 30 minutes, it is readily obvious why this partly improvised parody of mid-west, small town life has been such a smash. It began like a car amiably headed to its destination, but then this thing didn’t just skid, it careened over a cliff and we were forced to watch the horrible accident as it flipped down a ravine, resulting in a messy and slimy pile of bodies below (this is both figurative and literal, folks, but we’ll get to that in a moment).

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Bob’s Holiday Office Party at Pico Playhouse in Los Angeles

Insurance salesman Bob Finhead (co-author Rob Elk) is preparing for his annual holiday bash at his office which is tackily festooned with Christmas Americana (superb set design by Gary Guidinger). Bob is ready to depart this small town for the big time in Des Moines, so when Elwin (Pete Colburn, alternating with Pat O’Brien), an acquaintance from high school who was mercilessly bullied, arrives with an offer for Bob’s property, the salesman is intrigued. The play occurs in real time as Bob’s friends and clients arrive for what becomes a no-holds-barred, out-of-control party that culminates when we learn that Elwin has an ulterior motive.

The play is weak to begin with. While there is a lot of really good dialogue, there is no real central story which keeps us on board for the ride. Some of the characterizations are side-splittingly conceived, but they soon wear out their welcome because the play also has no central character to hang onto. We never know why Bob covers for his clients, many of whom are either late with payments or involved in multiple accidents. It’s a lot of side stories: Bob is having an affair with the mayor’s wife, Margie (Andrea Hutchman, alternating with Liz Davies); Mayor Roy (David Bauman) is probably gay, but that’s not resolved; and twin sisters La Voris (Linda Miller) and La Donna (Melissa Denton, alternating with Maile Flanagan), who are the most successful farmers in the area, spout out riotously ridiculous Republican rhetoric, but there’s no reason for them to be in this play, except to tongue and hump and fight and throw food around the room. Bob’s closest friend is peace officer Joe (co-author Joe Keyes), who is the first to show up at the party, and it is their opening scene which is so lovely because it’s rooted in reality even as we see this is a parody; the bathroom door is unhinged, and when Bob takes a dump in plain view while having a normal conversation, it’s hilarious, even when constricts himself and says, “Way too much string cheese.” The person with the most back story is Elwin, but Mr. Colburn played him so forced and mannered that it didn’t matter.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Bob’s Holiday Office Party at Pico Playhouse in Los Angeles

But none of this, and I mean NONE of this would have mattered had the show been rip-roaringly funny from top to bottom. Since most of the actors have appeared in this play before with other directors, it is clearly the direction of Matt Roth which is the main problem. Once the party kicks into high gear, it is almost impossible to know where to focus on the tiny stage: There’s plenty of improvisation going on (the show sprouted from an improv sketch 17 years ago), but when actors are improvising out loud while another scene is taking place, the effect is like a carnival ride that won’t stop. Beer and pretzels and Cheese Puffs manically fly about the stage, collecting in a slimy puddle which had us fearing for the actors’ safety by show’s end (some actually did fall over). The story becomes unimportant, actors are left to their own devices, and silly bits which may have worked somewhere elsewhere, fall flat here. A perfect example is when the twin sisters arrive and begin decorating a tiny Styrofoam tree with cheese cubes and toothpicks; it’s hysterical because these decorative food items actually exist. But when the coup de food comes in the form of Cheez Whiz, the sisters spray it higgledy-piggledy to top off their food tree, and it flies everywhere, landing on themselves, the furniture, and the floor. What started out as a belly laugh for us suddenly became silly and gratuitous. And if we don’t buy these people as real folk, it ain’t funny anymore.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Bob’s Holiday Office Party at Pico Playhouse in Los Angeles

Then there’s Ann Randolph, whose Loveland was the best solo show that I have ever seen. You simply cannot take your eyes off Ms. Randolph, who has been with Bob’s since the outset, when she makes her entrance as Carol, the unstable town crazy who happens to be the minister’s wife. This divine comedienne is so committed to her own loopy reality that simply rearranging her breasts to fit around a guitar is a comedic gift from heaven. But no sooner has this character appeared that she exits the play permanently. When Randolph returns for her dual role of the town slut Brandy, her astoundingly crude character is awash with brilliant physical comic timing (she has little dialogue), but she gets lost in the melee and her role suddenly feels annoyingly superfluous. (Shockingly, director Matt Roth also helmed Loveland, but since he has only two other credits in his bio, I will give credit for that terrific show to Ms. Randolph.)

I can see through opening night’s mess and realize why this show has such a loyal cult following, and the word is out that plans are afoot to turn this into a film. But this year, it sure felt slapdash, like the gang just didn’t take themselves seriously enough to be really funny. God, do I need a drink (but skip the Cheez Whiz).

photos by Daniel Galindo

Bob’s Holiday Office Party
Pico Playhouse
scheduled to end on December 22, 2012
for tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or visit http://www.bobsofficeparty.com

{ 3 comments }

Trent Warbush December 10, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Bah Humbug! Somebody didn’t drink his Christmas punch. I thought it was fun….as did the audience. Don’t believe this Scrooge’s review.

Jane Thalken January 31, 2013 at 1:54 am

When I read this, I felt like you had an x-ray of my mind and all my pet peeves. The least funny part of a classic Burnett sketch was when the lovely and wonderful actors would start cracking themselves up and fall out of character, ruining it. Talk about (*yawn*!), ugh, I-was-into-it-before-you-just-ruined-my-suspension-of-disbelief….thanks a lot. The premise sounds really fetching, I’d go. But not if it turns into a vanity production-equivalent to a high school variety show with everyone onstage at the same time.

rosie November 1, 2015 at 12:39 pm

I’ve seen this play at least 10 times, if not more. I look forward to this silliness every holiday season. it’s just plain fun. nothing serious about it. and that is how you have to take it. it is NOT a serious play in any way. it is so much fun. everyone I have taken enjoys it and can’t stop laughing. at times there is so much silliness going on, you don’t know which way to look. I can’t wait to see it this year, AGAIN.

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