A Christmas Story is such a well-meaning play, I hate to be a spoilsport by pointing out its flaws. Maybe the best that I can say about it is that children might find it pleasing, even while their parents find it tepid and, ultimately, boring. This adaptation, by Philip Grecian, of Jean Shepherd's short stories, which inspired the celebrated holiday movie, onstage is simply too predictable to hold our interest for very long and uses narrative strategies that become over-familiar much too soon. There are a few high points — mostly the Walter Mitty-like fantasies of 9-year-old Ralphie Parker — and a few fine performances in this American Stage production. But for the most part, A Christmas Story is a lukewarm evocation of a rather conventional childhood in a commonplace neighborhood in a stereotypical Middle West. I don't doubt that childhoods like Ralphie's have existed; but veracity's not drama, and charm isn't insight.
The tale that A Christmas Story tells is mostly about Ralphie's desire, in 1938 Hohman, Ind., for a "legendary official Red Ryder 200-Shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle," and of the lengths he goes to get his parents to buy him one. There are other stories too: about little brother Randy and his bladder, about the bully Scut Farkas and his depredations, about Father Parker's obsession with entering contests, and about the choosing of a Christmas turkey and tree. But again and again we return to the coveted BB gun, and to the strategies Ralphie uses in his campaign to acquire it.
The direct approach doesn't work. When he tells his mother what she wants, she simply says "You'll shoot your eye out" and treats the subject as closed. But Ralphie's not to be denied: He puts ads for the gun in the family mail and the family reading matter, writes an essay about the gun that will, he thinks, win his teacher over, and even makes a request to a department store Santa. And he fantasizes: about being a (BB gun-toting) cowboy and a (BB gun-toting) soldier of fortune. Finally, Christmas arrives and Ralphie rushes to the tree to discover if his efforts have paid off. ...
If it sounds like a subject for a short story, well, it is. As a subject for a two-hour play, though, it's just too thin. And author Grecian makes matters worse with running gags that aren't too funny to start with, and don't get funnier over time. For example, Ralphie endlessly repeats the long description of the BB gun as it appears in an advertisement, and his mother relentlessly announces that dinner tonight will be "meat loaf and red cabbage."
Younger brother Randy is repeatedly described as hiding under the furniture, and Dad is again and again chased by some dogs known as "the Bumpus hounds." At first these repetitions seem harmless enough, but by the end of the play they point to a failure of imagination. And the evening's high points — the fantasy sequences, and one satisfying segment wherein Ralphie finally takes on the school bully — are just too few to make a difference.
Dad Parker's winning of a contest is symptomatic of the play's failings. His prize, improbably, is a lamp in the shape of a woman's leg. His reaction, improbably, is to display the idiotic thing prominently in his front window, and to take pride, improbably, when passing drivers honk in derision. It's hard to know which part of this story is most incredible — the prize, the display, or the misinterpretation of public mockery. When the lamp finally breaks, we take pleasure, not in the Old Man's loss, but in the end of a peculiarly unconvincing plot feature. And we again find that we've been dissecting what we were supposed to be enjoying.
At least there are some likable performances to keep us interested. Ned Averill-Snell is excellent as the grown-up Ralph, the narrator of the evening's stories. Averill-Snell's stentorian voice is just what's needed to overcome the Dollinger Center's acoustic weaknesses, and his air of authority contrasts nicely with the silly activities he describes. Also superb is Emilia Sargent as Ralphie's happy (pre-Betty Friedan) housewife mother. Robert D. Mowry as her hapless husband exudes unrequited sincerity.
Darren McNeill as little Ralphie has a comically stolid demeanor — all the more comedic because we know the depth of his yearnings — and Danny Tuegel seems every bit the playground bully he portrays. The other child actors turn in generally adequate performances, but will need more time and practice before bursting into bloom.
Van Huff's direction is just fine — at its best when showing us Ralphie's fantasies — and Scott Cooper's set, an interior imprinted with various product logos and advertising slogans, makes a clever comment on the consumer-goods ambitions of Ralphie and his parents.
Maybe it's a mistake is to look at A Christmas Story from an adult perspective. After all, the play has a theme that most children can relate to — wanting a particular present for the holidays — and in its depiction of the obtuseness of parents and teachers, it may fit very well with a kid's interpretation of adult life.
I therefore recommend the play to children of about Ralphie's age, say, eight to 10. It's funny, it's relevant, and if your parents don't seem to care for it, well, what do they know, the old fogies? Predictable? You're too young to know what's predictable. And by the way, some of what you'll see — the narrator who talks to the audience, the acted-out fantasy sequences — is really rather advanced, dramaturgically speaking. So even though it's set in 1938, this is more or less cutting-edge theater. And if you like this one, well, have you heard of Tom Stoppard?
Maybe you've got to be a kid to see the virtues of A Christmas Story.
Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.