There's so much holiday cheer in Christmas Gremlins II, so much sincerity and good will, it feels curmudgeonly to point out its many flaws. But though it's infinitely earnest, Aubrey Hampton's Christmas play is fraught with defects, from a half-hearted plotline and magic tricks one can't help but see through to a mischievous gremlin with little to do and too much time to do it in. Fortunately, the acting in the show is generally solid, and there's the occasional fine trick, clever bit of dialogue and moment of true emotion. Is there enough competent work to satisfy an adult spectator? Not nearly, I'm sorry to say. But I suspect that the play will delight children, say, 6 to 10, and not naturally skeptical.
For kids of that age, Gadge the Gremlin may have a spooky reality, the love affair between Henry and Vickie may generate real suspense, and the climactic magic show in Act 2 might come across as truly mystifying. And kids that young might not even notice the general sloppiness of the evening, its lack of forward thrust, its lapses in logic.
This is professional theater with an amateur feel and therefore not for the overly perceptive. But a credulous boy or girl might honestly have a good time.
Christmas Gremlins II tells the story of Henry, a young, aspiring magician who's preparing to mount a Christmas magic show and who hopes that a certain Vickie will become his assistant — and girlfriend. It's also the tale of Mr. Marvel, Henry's mentor, who teaches Henry about gremlins and provides helpful advice on performing illusions. And finally, it's about Gadge the Gremlin, who sneaks into Mr. Marvel's Magic Shop and Henry's bedroom, doing mischief here and there and leaving just enough wreckage to advertise his presence.
The play builds toward Henry's magic show in Act 2, during which Vickie, illogically (where'd she get the training?) nearly takes over and ends with a visit from Santa Claus himself. Insofar as there's any suspense, it's tied to three scenarios: Will Henry and Vickie ever hook up? What sort of damage will Gadge wreak? And will Henry's magic act live up to its billing?
The whole play is punctuated by magic tricks — author Hampton doesn't want us to have to wait for these — and an element of danger is supposed to attach itself to Mergatroid the Rabbit (puppet), who's been "gremlinized" by Gadge and therefore threatens to ruin Henry's pageant. As an added attraction, Santa is available for photo ops after the show.
The actors are all charming, even at the show's weakest moments. Best of all is Chris Jackson as eager-to-learn Henry, the clean-cut aspiring magician who's too nervous to tell Vickie that he likes her but shrewd enough to ask her to step into a skimpy costume. Jackson's not a bad magician, but on several occasions he allowed this spectator to see things — a hinge, a button, a hidden compartment, a pattern in metal — that gave away the method behind several of his illusions.
Nevertheless, Jackson manages to be so likeably sincere that you want to congratulate him for keeping even a percentage of his work inexplicable. As love object and magician's assistant Vickie, Amanda Buck is innocence itself: shy, demure, no more fit for her revealing costume than would be Oz's Dorothy or Mary Poppins.
When Jackson and Buck are on stage together, you can almost believe that today's youth has altogether escaped the sordid effects of cable TV, Internet porn sites, hip-hop lyrics and the morning newspaper. Equally wholesome is David C. Baker as Mr. Marvel, the veteran magician who is proud to see Henry carry on the practice for a new generation. And Jessica Alexander as Henry's mother could hardly be better in her few minutes onstage.
Finally, Scott Isert is just fine as gremlin Gadge, though he has the silliest things to say and next to no importance to the plot. Bridget Bean's direction is ingratiating, but Tom Lewis' Act 1 set of the magic shop and Henry's bedroom is too rudimentary. Fortunately, his work improves in Act 2, when we're at the "Royal Theatre" for Henry's show.
One other note: There's a Punch and Judy show before Gremlins begins, and, as scripted by Hampton and operated by Sean Sanczel, it's a delight. I laughed more during its half hour than I did the rest of the evening. Come early so you won't miss it.
Afterward, sit back, relax ... and don't expect too much.