HERNDON, Va., December 16, 2013 – After more than 25 years’ existence as arguably northern Virginia’s most accomplished community theater troupes, Herndon, Virginia’s venerable Elden Street Players marked a major change of direction this year by going equity and re-branding themselves, appropriately, as the NextStop Theatre Company.
Still headquartered in their original black-box performance space and costume shop, aka “The Industrial Strength Theatre”—located deep within an anonymous-looking mini-warehouse complex just off the Fairfax County Parkway—NextStop is currently staging not one but two one-act, one-actor plays that turn a cherished pair of traditions upside down.
With original material adapted by Tom Mula, “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how the mechanics of Charles Dickens’ immortal holiday classic really work, while Ginna Hoban’s one-woman, New York-centric screwball comedy, “The 12 Dates of Christmas,” lets us in on why sex in the city really isn’t all it’s cut up to be, particularly during the emotionally complex year-end holiday season.
Each of these one acts makes use of a single, reconfigurable set, with “12 Days” set in a cramped but comfy New York apartment living room, while “Jacob Marley” uses the set as a sort of time machine behind the windows of which lurk the always-present costumes of those three famous Christmas spirits.
The 12 Dates of Christmas
In “12 Dates,” we meet hapless part-time actress and full-time failure at love Mary. Portrayed as a gal in perpetual motion by the indefatigable Kari Ginsberg—who plays all the other characters as well—Mary charts the beginning of her year-long losing streak from its not-so-secret origins during the previous year’s Thanksgiving Day debacle at her ancestral home in far off Ohio to the present, somewhere in Manhattan.
Mary’s losing streak commenced its downward trajectory when her then-fiancé, feigning health issues, declined to accompany her on her annual trip back home to the hinterlands where she plans to make that fateful introduction to the parents. The fiancé cops out of course, feigning illness. Unfortunately for him—and for Mary—the latter, while watching the televised coverage of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, discovers said fiancé smooching another babe during a camera pan of the audience.
Breaking her Ohio interlude abruptly, Mary ultimately decides to recover her wits and her mojo by embarking, New York style, on a series of affairs and almost-affairs, the better to renew her self-respect. Unfortunately, her frantic activities generally end up doing exactly the opposite. A bit like old Scrooge, however, she does get an opportunity for redemption right around the time next Christmas rolls around. We won’t tell you more.
The humor of “The Twelve Dates of Christmas” depends to some extent on understanding how the minds of many single—and even married—New Yorkers actually work. Relationships with members of the opposite sex may or may not result in marriage, which, in turn, may or may not be the actual object of the game. The real goal is social status, recognition, and monetary success. It’s Manhattan self-centeredness at its finest.
The phenomenon of relationship churn, in turn, results in the constant compulsion to trade in your old significant other for a new one who’s richer, better-connected, more attractive or—bonus points—all three. And it’s this treadmill that Mary unconditionally accepts. But in so doing, she gets an entire year’s worth of learning opportunities most of which she steadfastly refuses to absorb.
The result is an unfortunately real 21st century American holiday play that’s uproariously funny and incredibly sad at the same time. We ride along with Mary on her roller coaster journey of romance and heartbreak marveling at time at her sheer obliviousness and wrong-headedness while understanding her responses as perfectly rational at the same time.
Kari Ginsburg is marvelously funny throughout this play’s madcap 90 minutes or so. She embodies the befuddled but plucky Mary, who, like so many ambitious young people from the hinterlands heads East in hopes of finding fame and fortune but instead find themselves standing in line behind the thousands of like-minded 20- and 30-somethings who got there earlier. Everyone stays at great personal cost. Mainly because no one wants to go back to Ohio, or wherever, to spend the rest of life as an acknowledged failure.
Mary’s journey is often funny, occasionally bittersweet. But it’s also a timely year-end reflection focusing on the eternal question of just what’s really important in life.
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol
“12 Dates” is running in repertory with NextStop’s second holiday one-actor one-acter, Tom Mula’s adaptation of Dickens’ classic Christmas parable, this time entitled “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol.”
Mula’s concept is as intriguing as it is original. Instead of literally updating and/or re-telling what Dickens already has perfected, why not re-imagine the story’s events by reliving them as a behind-the-scenes drama that largely replaces Ebenezer Scrooge and instead employs his already-deceased partner Jacob Marley as the focal point.
Mula casts the restless spirit of Marley—aided and abetted by an otherworldly sprite known as “the Bogle”—as the man behind the curtain who actually sets the three spirits upon his old partner lest he suffer the same miserable fate in the afterlife as Marley is enduring now.
What we get here is an odd doppelgänger effect. Mula’s play is built on the recognizable bones of Dickens’ original, complete with Scrooge and his interaction with the three spirits. But in actually orchestrating these visitations like a backstage puppeteer, this Jacob Marley makes his own three journeys to the past, present, and future and learns he must somehow find redemption as well. He’s aided in this task by the seemingly inept Bogle, a character clearly inspired by the bumbling angel Clarence from the classic Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
So, can Jacob Marley—who, in this play, tends to out-Scrooge Scrooge when it comes to callousness and greed—overcome his own sordid past on earth, even though he’s well past his pull date? You’ll have to catch this play to find out.
Once again, as in “12 Dates,” it takes considerable effort, and guts, for a lone actor to tackle Jacob Marley, the Bogle, and a great deal of the other characters in this relatively short but intense little play that’s split into two acts. But Ray Ficca, who plays Marley et. al. in this NextStop production did a mostly bang-up job on opening night.
We say mostly, because Ficca at times seemed a bit uncertain of his lines and occasionally traded accents among his considerable stable of characters, most of whom come from very different walks in life. Frankly, we’d chalk the bulk of this off to opening-night jitters, which claim nearly every actor or actress from time to time no matter how famous. It happens.
And after all, “Jacob Marley” is actually somewhat longer than “12 Dates,” requiring the actor who’s handling all those parts to get comfortable with even more material and to get beneath an even greater number of fictional skins in order to pull things off. By now, Ray Ficca has surely gotten more comfortable with the material and will likely be firing on all cylinders for the remainder of this show’s run.
We’d unhesitatingly recommend both plays, particularly if you’re at the point where you’re looking for an antidote to the holiday season’s more treacly stuff.
One minor caveat, however. “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol,” while occasionally a little intense like the novel that inspired it, is family fare. On the other hand, we’d rate “12 Dates of Christmas” as roughly PG-13, given its frank language and adult content, although none of it is particularly over the top by current standards.
In other words, you can bring the kiddies to “Marley,” but get a babysitter if you plan to see “12 Dates.”
“The 12 Dates of Christmas”: *** (Three out of four stars)
“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol”: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)
Both “12 Dates of Christmas” and “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” continue their run at the Industrial Strength Theater through December 29. Note that these one act plays run not together but on separate nights.
Tickets: To purchase tickets to either show or both, visit Ovation Tix or call them at 866-811-4111.
For information and directions, visit the NextStop Theatre Company website.
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