Dallas — The holidays can be a minefield of merriment and remembrance. The season is made doubly daunting when well-intentioned invitations demand the navigation of other people’s complex family traditions. Things can get a little confusing.
That’s what the third annual A Very Nouveau Holiday, presented by Nouveau 47 Theatre at the Margo Jones Theatre, is like: mingling at someone else’s family Christmas party. There are happy people, sad people and weird people who make it hard to know exactly how to react. The only constant is that the conversations (one-acts) are short.
Well, that, and Santa keeps showing up.
The evening begins well with former TheaterJones critic Kris Noteboom’s Selling Santa. Brian Witkowicz plays the jolly old fellow facing a pair of businessmen played by Maxim Overton and DeWayne Blundell. What begins as a cynical scenario turns positively hopeful. Director Jim Kuenzer, who also penned one of the evening’s plays, keeps a wry eye on the emotional bottom line.
With Dot’s Nachos, playwright Shelby-Allison Hibbs—who wrote the amazing Mania/Gift at the 2014 Festival of Independent Theatres—turns in a meditation on how tradition sometimes hides the power of ritual inside mundane things like bad nachos. The first hints of trouble materialize here. Blundell played a businessman moments before and Andra Lane Hunter was just Santa’s secretary. Now she’s grandma and he’s a son-in-law. It’s hard to say whether the doubling is made more difficult by the simplicity of the subject matter or the simplicity is made more apparent by the doubling.
Maxim Overton returns opposite Witkowicz in Ben Schroth’s No Season. The tone turns markedly more morose as these two play brothers dredging their memories of mom. It’s familiar family fodder given legs by the power of Witkowicz’s performance. He shines throughout the evening leaping nimbly from genre to genre. Case in point is his transition from here to the next play, Last Christmas by Matthew James Edwards.
Director Rebecca McDonald who also handled Dot’s Nachos has her hands full with this mixed-up maudlin mess. Witkowicz plays another version of Santa here, garnering our amusement just long enough for us to realize that it’s misplaced. DeWayne Blundell is a man ready to end it all when a distracted Saint Nick goes through the motions of saving his skin. It’s not a spoiler to say it doesn’t end well.
Picking up the pieces and other people’s mail is Overton as Clay and Bonnie Mitchell as Corey. Colin Miller has the most original dialogue in this riff on the neighbor romance at the holidays: Maybe It’s You. Though she was in the second show, here Mitchell shines as the object of affection to the impossibly awkward Corey. There’s not much for director Alex Bigus to do with this two-hander. This is not the case in the first-act-ender Winslow Family Christmas. And Kyle.
Director Bigus gives playwright Greg Silva’s comedy the scale it deserves. Witkowicz is back and brilliant as the protective dad whose daughter, Rebecca (Maya Peterson), has brought home a suitor, Kyle (Maxim Overton). Every time mom, Bevv (Andra Laine Hunter) and daughter make excuses to leave the men alone, Dad has to intimidate the suitor into not asking for her hand. It’s classic comedy material well handled.
After intermission is Kevin Fuld’s Musing on the Holidays. The show is well-placed after the break by producer Erin Singleton because the tone is so delicate, but it never really finds its feet. Memory lane doesn’t provide a lot of dramatic traction. On the other end of the excitement spectrum is It’s a Bird, it’s a plane, it’s Christmas directed by Nic McMinn.
This conventional comic book tale is played with gleeful hokum. Playwright Jim Kuenzer sets the silly loose with characters like Professor Fritz Ennui (Witkowicz), Captain Hero (Maxim Overton) and Little Timmy (Maya Peterson). Andra Laine Hunter seems most at home though as Nurse Patsy.
Jared Seman turns the Elf on a Shelf tradition on its ear with Elf Help by expanding the little doll’s watchful gaze. Witkowicz finds yet another way to entertain us as Winky who keeps an eye on everything.
The final show is basically a monologue shouldered by Andra Laine Hunter, only the playwright Brad McEntire has added an abominable gimmick. Titled Yeti at the Airport, it’s pretty clear what that would be. Hunter plays Amanda, who is so upset that her companion home has canceled at the last minute that she is unfazed by the Yeti (DeWayne Blundell) next to her at the airport. Though he has no lines, Blundell’s work here is some of his best of the night.
All in all, it’s a grab bag of an evening. Some moments are brilliant and funny; some are sad and poignant, but rarely do they sustain through a whole play. The evening has the unsteady feel of the sketches after Weekend Update on SNL. Only these have the added, unenviable requirement of having to be centered on the season.