Jon Patrick O’Brien, Victoria Reibel, Michael Roberts & Susan Linville in Christmas on Mars.
Christmas on Mars
By Harry Kondoleon
Directed by Tony Prince
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The Liminal Playhouse has selected an unusual, funny play for its inaugural production. Harry Kondoleon’s Christmas on Mars places four oddball characters in an apartment together and then sets them in fluid conflict with each other for the run of the play.
Audrey (Victoria Reibel) and Bruno (Jon Patrick O’Brien) are lovers viewing the empty apartment together as a potential home. She reveals she is pregnant and he reveals that he has asked Audrey’s estranged mother, who she hasn’t seen in many years, for financial help in securing the lease. After some time spent on this first conflict, Bruno’s roommate Nissim (Michael Roberts) arrives to reveal that he and Bruno are lovers. Or are they? We accept Nissim’s homosexuality but Bruno strenuously denies a relationship. The complications only expand once Audrey’s mother, Ingrid (Susan Linville), enters.
These early scenes are fast-paced and filled with sharp, acerbic dialogue, much of it from Nissim. There is also a continually shifting understanding of each character’s history. What is Bruno’s real name? Have Nissim and Bruno actually been lovers? Did her mother horrifically abuse Audrey, as she claims? At one point Nissim tells a story from his past which immediately seems suspicious because it is inconsistent with what had thus far been discovered, but moments later Bruno confirms it to be true. The device forces the audience to stay on its toes wondering who is using whom?
In the second act Kondoleon pushes the limits of our sympathy for these people, setting up explosions of conflict that reveal years of selfish, neurotic contempt. At a certain point, it feels overloaded and tedious, and the ending reinforces that, at least in this instance, the playwright seems much more interested in building conflict than resolving it. The allusion to the nativity is not forced, but I’m not sure it makes sense either, as the grace bestowed by the pending birth never plays out satisfactorily. The holiday setting of the second act does help shape the action into a finale, but the metaphor remains strained.
That problem is somewhat overcome by the fact that director Prince draws good work from a well-chosen quartet of actors. Nissim is the most complex, mercurial, and contradictory of the four characters, and Michael Roberts does not waste the opportunity. This is perhaps the best work I have seen from this actor. Jon Patrick 0’Brien’s Bruno seems a little rough around the edges for a preening male model, but he invests the character with brutal charisma and a mercenary heart. Victoria Reibel makes Audrey a troubled vixen in act one, immensely pregnant in act two, with an adept comic performance in both. Susan Linville gives Ingrid great authority, even when revealing her considerable vulnerability. All four are required to work through moments of high-energy tumult that are as demanding as they are nonsensical, and quicksilver emotional shifts that might defeat a lesser team.
Shane Estes’ experience as a vintage clothing expert well informs his costume work here. The period-perfect quality of Bruno’s paisley shirt, Audrey’s crocheted mini dress, and particularly Nissim’s TWA flight attendant uniform replete with TWA travel bag succinctly establish the early 1970’s setting.
While Christmas on Mars is challenging in its incredulity, it seems a fair exemplar of The Liminal Playhouse’s mission and intention to pursue material that is fluid in its impact and not easily pigeonholed. Whatever else it is, it is an opportunity for talented local actors to chew on meaty dialogue and volatile emotional transitions, and their work makes for a worthwhile evening of theatre.
Christmas on Mars
September 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, and 12 at 7:30 pm
September 6 and 13 at 2:00 pm
The Liminal Playhouse
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40203
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]