This time of year, PushPush Theater becomes the Secret Santa for Atlanta theater people. By staging its annual in-joke holiday spoof, PushPush bestows a kind of gag gift to all the local actors and other theater professionals who dutifully stage A Christmas Carol and other sacred cows year in, year out.
PushPush's play typically takes the premise of a small, beleaguered playhouse staging the Dickens classic, and it offers a fresh variation with this year's ensemble-created Expecting Carol II: Dick 'n' Carol. PushPush's latest Christmas present begins with a clever premise but turns into formless slush.
Dick 'n' Carol begins with the scene in Scrooge's office, and we first notice something odd when his jolly nephew Fred (Neal Hazard) mentions the unfortunates "left homeless in the Superdome." Scrooge (Sahr Ngaujah) eventually breaks character as Dick, the show's director and resident prima donna, who bullies the show's meek young Bob Cratchit (Randy Havens) and disdains the holidays. The show provides some clever satire of theater economics: Dick rejects a plea to participate in a toy drive, maintaining, "We're a not-for-profit! WE are the charity!"
The play gets plenty of mileage from the notion that the actor playing Scrooge is also a misanthropic miser, and the contemporary dialogue often amusingly echoes Dickens' own words. The ghosts reveal to Dick how he started as a naive, stage-struck idealist who gradually became a cynical sellout, happy to pander to the audience's lowest expectations, like injecting fart jokes into the flashback party scene.
Dick 'n' Carol's pleasant, workable premise turns increasingly confusing and pretentious. After each ghostly visitation, Dick awakens in bed played by a different actor, and it's difficult to tell if they're the same person or what. The show culminates with Dick, or maybe Scrooge himself, put on trial, leading to wearisome speeches about the value of theater.
It's a shame that Dick 'n' Carol doesn't leave well enough alone, because it concocts numerous entertaining moments, like an awkward rehearsal of Victorian dance choreography and the "conceptual theater" notion of a rapping Tiny Tim. ("Baby Jesus! It's your birthday!" "Go T.T.! Go T.T.!") Havens even manages to deliver the line, "God bless us, every one," free of irony. But by building to murky themes and narrative gimmicks, Dick 'n' Carol feels like the kind of present that doesn't live up to the quality of its packaging.
Dick 'n' Carol runs through Dec. 31 at PushPush Theater, 121 New St., Decatur. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. $16. 404-377-6332. www.pushpushtheater.com.
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