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Off the Ground, by Amy Chini and Tom Zohar
New Village Arts Theatre
Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, Common Ground Theatre, WorldBeat Center

Kristianne Kurner's set previews Off the Ground before the actors arrive. It's Christmas Eve day at Grandpa Dick's Pennsylvania home, but you see nary a tree nor an ornament in his living room, and only one holiday card. A patina of dust covers drab furnishings, from the Frump Collection at Cheapo's for Less. Perched on a brick wall, a bowling pin oversees a floor strewn with unclipped Sunday paper coupons. The room looks lived in, if couch-potatoing qualifies as living.

Amy Chini and Tom Zohar's world-premiere script's a behind-the-façade Christmas show, in which volatile, smarmy subtexts invade the chipper surface. Not that he'd care, but in Dick's family, every day must shine bright. Troubles do not exist. In fact, they wouldn't dare. That's why Joel's divorce, a year ago, cast such a negative reflection on a clan programmed to succeed. Rather than acknowledge the split, they've stayed away from each other for the last 12 months.

Joel and Dick, whose wife died four years ago, have been housemates for a while. Neither's in a festive mood. So when their extended family comes for Christmas ("We didn't invite them," Dick barks, "they invited themselves!"), all hell pretty much breaks loose.

We're talking scream-outs and hasty "well, humph!" exits and threats of divorce, as if the arrival of the tree and ornaments and well-meaning relatives injected everyone with Tourette's syndrome -- or, with what Bob Dylan calls a "truth attack." The family that "pretends everything's fine" dismantles. Then, in a leap even red-nosed reindeers would not attempt when sober, they come back together and enjoy some late-evening holiday pie.

The leap's a whopper, especially since Act Two's full of soap operatics and then suddenly, at the end, we're in a comedy humming Christmas carols. The script is strongest in immediate exchanges. When actors stand toe-to-toe, the dialogue crackles. Problems arise getting into and back out of the bickering, however. The writing raises as many questions as it answers and needs stronger dramatic arcs and builds. For example, the first act, which introduces the family, just ends.

Joshua Everett Johnson, one of the best actors around, has directed the play for emotional truth. This gives his cast chances to cut loose (Wendy Waddell, with an impressively sustained, earth-shaking tirade), to ground their characters (Charlie Riendeau's understated, funny Gramps, grumpy with good reason), and feel deeply (Francis Gercke's divorced Joel, not spending Christmas with his daughter). But genuine emotions also expose gaps in the script's fuzzy motivations and abrupt vaultings over the edge, then bounding back up. If the family feels so deeply, how could they suddenly revert to their ostrich, "everything's peachy" lives?

The characters lack dimension. They're pretty much just their problems. It's unpleasant to say, but an acting style that's a tad more whacko-dysfunctional might have alleviated some of the script's difficulties, and it might have made the family more likable.

***

Hear the word "Scrooge," and you think what? Bah, humbug? Miser? Frozen heart? Our first glimpse in Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, an African-American musical adaptation of Dickens's Christmas Carol, comes as a surprise: the guy's joyous! He loves the holiday season, he sings, while symbolically pickpocketing shoppers in 1970s Harlem. It's a perfect time for exploitation, he chortles: "Somebody's gotta be the heavy. Somebody's gotta be the snake."

And even though the thermometer just hit 30 below, he's foreclosing apartments, a rec center, and a church ("If they can't pay, they can't pray"), because his profit motive doesn't take days off. He's so greedy that even to stand near him is "de-po-RESS-ing." If he doesn't get an attitude adjustment soon, as a fiery trio sings, he'll land a "One-Way Ticket to Hell."

One could wish that the acoustics for Common Ground Theatre's show were sharper (sit close to the stage if you can) and that portions were tighter, but the production overall is hip, engaging, and fun. The familiar characters get new guises. Played by Manolito Lopez, for example, Jacob Marley becomes a Bob Marley look-alike, with white, flowing dreadlocks. As a statuesque Christmas Present and as Mary, Scrooge's ex-, versatile Chondra Profit depicts two different ways of being no-nonsense. The dynamic trio of singers -- Deanne Cartwright, Loren Lott, and Evie Pree -- should cut a record. And Warren Nolan Jr. makes for a terrific Scrooge, whose shift from ebb to flow is both funny and moving.

***

'Tis the season, and local theater abounds with an amazing variety of holiday shows: you can have a white Christmas, literally, at Julian's Town Hall, or a turn-of-the-(19th)-century extravaganza at the Hotel del, or watch Tiny Tim become Scrooge-like at 6th@Penn. And if the season becomes too much and you hanker for quality, non-Yuletide productions, I heartily recommend Moxie Theatre's Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen and Mo`olelo's Cowboy Versus Samurai. Both must close this weekend.

Off the Ground, by Amy Chini and Tom Zohar
New Village Arts Theatre, 2787-B State Street, Carlsbad
Directed by Joshua Everett Johnson; cast: Charlie Riendeau, Francis Gercke, Wendy Waddell, Terry Scheidt, Sandra Ellis-Troy, Jack Missett, Amanda Morrow; scenic and costume design, Kristianne Kurner; lighting, Ashley Jenks; sound, Adam Brick Playing through December 23; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 760-433-3245.
For dates and times, click here.

Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, lyrics by Peter Udell, music by Garry Sherman, book by Udell and Phillip Rose Common Ground Theatre, WorldBeat Center, 2100 Park Boulevard, Balboa Park Directed by Charles W. Patmon Jr.; cast: Warren Nolan Jr., John Paul Roberts Jr., Chondra Profit, Bryan Bargarin, Patrick Kelly, Deanne Cartwright, Loren Lott, Evie Pree, Manolito Lopez, Nicol Thomas, Dezmon Patmon, Andre, Onna Harper, Ida L. Rhem; scenic design, Ted Crittenden; lighting, Jennifer Zodrow; costumes, Joan Hanselman-Wong; sound, Alvin Green Lewis; choreography, Manolito Lopez; musicians, David B. Phillips, Russell Ramo, Justin Tinker, Charles Gooden. Playing through December 16; Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-263-7911.

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