Chicago Theater Review: TWIST YOUR DICKENS, OR SCROOGE YOU! (The Second City at the Goodman)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 11, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

SUGAR PLUMS AND COALS—ALL IN A VERY STUFFED STOCKING

Goodman Theatre just got schizoid. On one end of its block-long Dearborn Street lobby is the Albert Theatre, where the sacred cash cow A Christmas Carol continues to attract traditional holiday lovers. But, on the north end, the black-box Owen Theatre is showcasing an unsubtle subversion of Dickens’ classic: The Second City’s 110-minute, broad-based, take-no-prisoners parody, Twist Your Dickens, or Scrooge You!

Francis Guinan (Scrooge) and Tim Stoltenberg (Bob Cratchit) in The Second City’s Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort at Goodman Theatre.

This offering lampoons not just the beloved 1843 parable of  miserliness redeemed but assorted Christmas staples as well: A new, supposedly original, ending concludes the 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas in which the Peanuts gang savages an overly pious Linus for trying to appropriate the holiday as a fundamentalist propaganda piece; on the “Island of Misfit Toys,” the miserable rejects console themselves by turning on each other; George Bailey makes a cameo appearance, which allows Scrooge to direct him to an appropriate bridge from which to end it all; and in another weird interruption, Oliver Twist leads other forlorn Dickens’ orphans in a strike, joined by equally sadsack American cast-offs spawned by the Great Depression (Dorothy Gale, Orphan Annie, and Batman).

Francis Guinan (Scrooge) and Frank Caeti (Ghost of Christmas Past) in The Second City’s Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren.

There’s an irrelevantly hammy bit where a lounge singer named Ruby (Beth Melewski) murders holiday classics (“Police Navidad!,” “Chess’ Nuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), and—paparazzi alert!—there’s a nightly celebrity appearance (at the opening, it was master chef Rick Bayless, a narrator who kept his dignity.)

Beth Melewski. Tim Stoltenberg , Sayjal Joshi, Peter Gwinn, Robyn Scott, and Frank Caeti in The Second City’s Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! at teh Goodman - photo by Liz Lauren.

But, despite this theatrical ADD of go-for-broke chuckle-makers, this spoof’s goal is mostly to deflate Ebenezer Scrooge for more than pinching pence. Like a film blog that exposes every continuity problem in a feature film, Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort’s concoction takes pot shots at any inconsistency in this most popular Christmas fiction since the Nativity. Somehow they leave out how Dickens forgets that Marley originally warned Scrooge that the Spirits would take three days, then changes his mind and does it all on Christmas Eve.

Beth Melewski, Tim Stoltenberg, Peter Gwinn, Sayjal Joshi, Robyn Scott, and Frank Caeti in The Second City’s Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! at Goodman Theatre – photo by Liz Lauren.

Anyway, on this manically busy stage Tiny Tim (a winsome Sayjal Joshi), who’s improbably dying of a bad leg, takes forever to answer the door, and hosts a slumber party for kids with even direr disabilities. Marley (Peter Gwinn) argues that he’s a ghost too (there are four spirits whose only qualification is that they’re dead) and reads from his red-and-green-paper chains written confessions from audience members of misdeeds they regret (written in the lobby before the show). The Ghost of Christmas Future can only speak through “Charades.” The other two emanations are dysfunctional hipsters sassing an old codger who just happens to love prisons and workhouses a bit too much.

Beth Melewski, Sayjal Joshi and Peter Gwinn in The Second City’s Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! at Goodman Theatre – photo by Liz Lauren.

Throughout the improv sections (when, for instance, the audience offers identity suggestions for Belle’s new boyfriend after she spurns Ebenezer), a delightfully dour, unflappably imperturbable Francis Guinan stays crotchety and cranky. He bellows at charity seekers who expletively curse him back, yells at his doofus nephew whose moronic laugh makes you sympathize with Scrooge (especially when Ebie finally arrives eight hours early to Fred’s Yule party), and roars at Bob (Tim Stoltenberg), who plots with the other sociopathic Cratchits to murder Scrooge and make it look like suicide. Frank Caeti plays a niggling Dickens purist who stops the action to demand complete Victorian accuracy (Scrooge can’t have a vertical filing cabinet in his counting house). Robyn Scott’s Mrs. Cratchit all but auditions for a murder spot on the Investigation Discovery channel. The ensemble sports “business casual Dickensian” wear (ugly sweaters and other clichés). There are enough rubber faces here for a tire store.

Beth Melewski (Ghost of Christmas Present) and Francis Guinan (Scrooge) in The Second City’s Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren.

Much of Second City’s comedy-as-commentary vacillates between screamingly and seemingly funny. But what could be a merry mockery of the Carol Burnett persuasion (observing George M. Cohan’s adage “Always leave them laughing when you say goodbye”) all but dies the “death of 1,000 quips.” Too often Twist Your Dickens becomes scattershot hit-and-miss, anything-for-a-groan comedy, staged by Matt Hovde as much to see what he can get away with as to simply amuse. What’s missing is a point of view to inform and infuse the satire: That’s just where Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s hip-hop parody A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol so completely succeeds or, for all its hubristic flaws, Stupid Fucking Bird cleverly vandalizes Chekhov.

(L to R) Peter Gwinn (Jacob Marley) and Francis Guinan (Scrooge) in The Second City’s Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren.

But, even if you regret it a second later, you can’t take back a laugh. Enough guffaws happen here to insure that this spirited frat show never quite outwears its welcome. To prove that humor can outlast the Christmas spirit, this romp has already extended into January, even as your definitive Dickens plays right down the corridor from this over-cooked Christmas goose.

Sayjal Joshi and Frank Caeti in The Second City’s Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You! at Goodman Theatre – photo by Liz Lauren.

[Editor’s Note: Click here for Stage and Cinema’s review of Twist Your Dickens in L.A.]

photos by Liz Lauren

Twist Your Dickens, or Scrooge You!
The Second City
Owen Theatre at the Goodman, 170 North Dearborn
scheduled to end on January 3, 2015
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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