Chicago Theater Review: TWIST YOUR DICKENS (The Second City at the Goodman)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 9, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


In the month of December, Goodman Theatre simply goes 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. (A smugly complacent look at a non-threatening Ebenezer, by now it’s more a pretty Christmas pantomime than a faithful adaptation.) But, on the north end, now in its third season, the black-box Owen Theatre showcases an unsubtle and interactive subversion of Dickens’s classic that’s top heavy with topicality and anachronisms galore: The Second City’s 120-minute, broad-based, take-no-prisoners parody, Twist Your Dickens lampoons, not just the beloved 1843 parable of miserliness redeemed, but assorted Christmas staples.

You can hear the chestnuts roar in this roast.


So, along with a dysfunctional North Pole, we’re regaled with a new, supposedly original, ending for the beloved 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas: Now the Peanuts gang savage 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. In another weird interruption, an infomercial for The Nutcracker offers salacious outtakes from the original ballet.

greg-matthew-anderson-in-the-second-citys-twist-your-dickens-at-goodman-theatreIn a stereotypical La La Land interview, Dickens himself pitches picture projects as he defends his social messages. George Bailey makes a cameo appearance, which lets Scrooge direct him to an appropriate bridge from which to end it all. He later returns with assorted progress reports from Bedford Falls. The coal industry offers its own holiday spinoff, “Merry Coalmas!”

But, despite this theatrical ADD of go-for-broke chuckle-makers and fake and smarmy commercial breaks, this spoof’s goal is mostly to deflate Ebenezer Scrooge for more than pinching pence. Like a cineaste’s 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.)


Anyway, on this manically busy stage Tiny Tim (a pointedly pathetic Sarah Dell’Amico), who’s improbably dying of a bad leg, takes forever to answer the door. Marley (Joe Dempsey) argues that he’s a ghost too (there are four spirits whose qualification is to be dead) and reads from his red and green paper chains chosen confessions from audience members of bad deeds they regret (written in the lobby before the show).


The Ghost of Christmas Future gets upset when he fears Scrooge has gone “off mission.” The other two emanations (Carisa Barreca and Joel Boyd) are dysfunctional hipsters sassing an old codger who just happens to love prisons and workhouses a bit too much.


Throughout the improv sections (when, for instance, the audience offers identity suggestions for two manic jingle-writers), a delightfully dour and deadpan, unflappably imperturbable Ron West stays crotchety and cranky. His splenetic Scrooge bellows at charity seekers who expletively curse him back, the doofus nephew whose moronic laugh makes you sympathize with Scrooge, and Bob Cratchit (Greg Matthew Anderson).


The malicious milquetoast Cratchit plots with his sociopathic clan to murder Scrooge and make it look like suicide. Boyd also plays a niggling Dickens purist who stops the action to demand complete Victoriana accuracy. (Scrooge can’t have a vertical filing cabinet in his counting house.) Katie Caussin’s Mrs. Cratchit, lethal as she is demure, could audition for a murder spot on Investigation Discovery. There are enough rubber faces for a tire store and enough brand humor to sponsor a subsidiary.


Much of Second City’s channel-switching comedy/commentary is screamingly to seemingly funny, like the allusion to Trump voters who preferred their assumptions of entitlement over the candidate’s fitness to be President. But too often what could be a merry mockery of The Carol Burnett Show persuasion (observing George M. Cohan’s adage “Always leave them laughing when you say goodbye”) all but dies the “death of 1,000 quips.”


As with the finale’s obligatory sing-along, Twist Your Dickens becomes scattershot “hit and miss,” “anything for a groan” comedy, staged by Ron West 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 2014 hip-hop travesty A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol succeeded or, for all its hubristic flaws, Stupid Fucking Bird and Life Sucks vandalize Chekhov.


But even if you regret it the next second you can’t take back a laugh (or regret it either) — and this romp may well extend into the New Year to prove that humor can outlast the Christmas spirt. Enough guffaws erupt to prevent this spirited frat show from ever outwearing its welcome. Besides, there’s a more definitive, if imperfectly cautionary, Dickens right down the corridor from this over-cooked Christmas goose. You’re Scrooged either way.


photos by Liz Lauren

Twist Your Dickens
The Second City
Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on December 30, 2016
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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