Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Christmas Carol at Trinity Rep

A Christmas Carol, now at Trinity Rep, begins with a solitary chair onstage and ends with an ensemble easily outnumbering the available seats and, anyway, too boisterous to even think about sitting down. One would feel like--well, like a Scrooge, for not joining them in smiles and song. But this holiday cheer, like much holiday cheer, feels clinical: it is just as carefully calculated as any of mean old Scrooge's accounting sheets. Is ersatz magnanimity really any better than genuine irascibility? As silly and dispensable as this Christmas tradition might feel, it can still summon our deeper, richer feelings if it aspires to any sort of authenticity--that is, if its own feeling is deep and rich. But this production shows Scrooge transforming from sourpuss, right past sweetheart, to pure sap. Scrooge, in his final, viscous incarnation, is cloying and unpalatable. This is a real shame. As played by Timothy Crowe (whom we last saw onstage swaying like a deeply rooted but fatally weakened tree as the lone character of conscience in The Receptionist), the Scrooge of the first quarter of the play is a virtuosic misanthrope, bilious and bullying. His mastery of mockery makes him a pleasure to watch: we can't wait to hear what outrageous affront he'll come up with next. As the show moves along, however, we begin to lose him. Crowe concedes too much. Instead of insisting on Scrooge's reprehensibility, he relents. His Scrooge is not such a tough guy, after all. He is neither, it turns out, such a nice guy, even after his putative transformation. Doubtless he has been transformed, but the process has been more chemical than spiritual, and he spends the last quarter of the play oozing around the stage like a sugary paste. This caricature of sweetness is almost horrifying; it is certainly less recognizably human than the earlier caricature of bitterness.

The Baltimore writer Stephen Dixon has a story, "Change," in which a man resolves to end his cynicism and condescension and open himself up to possibility in the world. He goes too far, of course, and one of the strangers on the street whom he accosts with kindness challenges him: "'People hear you like this they won't take to it. I don't know what you conceive of as new changes, but if this is supposed to be one for the better, I hate to think of what you were like before.'" If only Scrooge were offered such objective criticism.

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