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The Fast and the Spurious

Madcap, Offbeat Comedy Entertainingly Splinters Into The Implausible And Impossible

NICKY FINGERS: Nick (Jim Page) keeps Little Nancy (Courtney Krimmel) from mouthing off.

By J. Bowers | Posted 8/17/2005

The Best Christmas Murder Ever By Ron Holsey

At the Fells Point Corner Theatre through Aug. 28

Playwright Ron Holsey bills The Best Christmas Murder Ever as being “about belief and power and the territory that exists between good and evil, naughty and nice.” Frankly, that is taking things way too seriously. Chances are, you’ll come away shell-shocked from seeing way too many garish sequined Christmas sweaters and find yourself wandering the streets around Fells Point Corner Theatre quoting outrageous lines such as “Mother, Cedric Bedazzled his pubic hair,” “Violet is the new blue,” and “Next time somebody gives you a hard time, just lick ’em.”

The plot, such as it is, loosely follows the Van Wert and Cochonette family Christmas Pageant, essentially a popularity contest between hyper girly-girl Alexis (played with Cheri Oteri exuberance by Bryn Mawr senior Emily Hahn), her effeminate brother Cedric (Jimmy Morgan), action figure-obsessed twins Johnny (Drew Krimmel) and Mikey (Angelo Tarallo), and Little Nancy (Courtney Krimmel channeling Buffy-era Michelle Trachtenberg). All of the kids, except for Little Nancy’s college-aged brother Thomas (J.R. Barton, doing an uncanny Corey Feldman impression), are obsessed with impressing Aunt Cardamom (a delightfully simpering Nancy Dall) and their unseen grandmother, who apparently suffers from skin so dry that it prevents her from interacting socially with the family—but she rises from her convalescence once every year to witness the children’s Christmas Pageant.

This year is different, however—in addition to being cast as “The Swaddling,” Little Nancy has made friends with the murderer she’s harboring in the attic (a grizzled, cucumber sandwich-wolfing Jim Page), and she’s convinced that he is Santa Claus. Throw in a few guns, allusions to incest, the fact that almost everyone in the play still believes in Santa Claus, and a Psycho-inspired plot twist, and you have a decent evening of not-so-family-oriented fun.

Everything in the production is exaggerated for comic effect, from the actors’ movements to their hilariously holiday-appropriate attire. The story is told in short, episodic bursts—a solid structure for a comedy play—but awkward blackouts and onstage costume changes wound the story’s madcap momentum, as does the soundtrack of Christmas standards. (Some more unusual holiday tunes would have been very welcome.) And the chemistry between the actors is uneven—Hahn and Morgan are delightful as a codependent brother/sister duo, but feel out of place interacting with other characters. The three older family members in the play—Dall’s pervy Aunt Cardamom, Aunt Jasmine (imbued with a delightfully human note by Janise Bonds), and shy Aunt Rosemary (Lisa Geyer, at her psychotic best when she’s brandishing an electric turkey carver)—look uncomfortable around one another, but it’s the sort of discomfort that comes from a lack of chemistry, not the strained familial relations depicted in the play.

Set designer Bush Greenbeck has outdone himself, assembling a convincing family home in the throes of a traditional Christmas celebration. Small touches such as a hideously blue candy cane, a Christmas tea set, and a rocking horse give the house a slightly lived-in feel, and it’s strangely nice to see a Christmas tree in the middle of August. Of course, it’s an indisputable and painfully obvious rule of theater that when you see two antique guns crossed over a fireplace mantle, they’re most definitely loaded—child safety be damned—and are probably going to be used before the end of the first act. It would’ve been nice to see the guns worked into the set a little more creatively, or replaced by the even more threatening electric turkey carver. Also, without giving too much away, this play should win some kind of award for Unconvincing Corpse Disposal.

Overall, though, The Best Christmas Murder Ever is a fast and funny ride, more like a series of sketch-comedy vignettes than a cohesive narrative story. As a result, it’s not too surprising—and easily forgivable—when the whole thing comes crashing to a sudden and abrupt halt, leaving absolutely every plot thread unresolved and dangling. You get the impression that nothing ever changes in the Van Wert/Cochonette household, despite all the “revelations” that occur in the final act, but that appears just fine. Holsey’s characters are caricatures, impossible to take seriously, and impossible to worry about—and in stage comedy, sometimes that’s all you’re looking for.

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