Oh, 'tis the season of A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street, when theatres across the world are heating up their lights to yet another Santa Claus story. The curtain yet again closes to an audience sing-along of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".
To save you from this perpetual thrum of cookie-cutter Christmas cheer, Next Act Theatre brings a cynical, one-woman take on the most wonderful time of the year: The Twelve Dates of Christmas. Ginna Hoben's script reflects the grinch that can't help but come out in all of us when the Hallmark original movies begin to play. Mary, after a brutally broadcasted breakup, finds herself yet again on the search for love.
Unlike Hallmark would have you think, it is not so easy.
Running at an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, pacing is key for this piece. Susie Duecker's Mary does overflow with a certain manic energy, but this doesn't quite translate to the run time - By date seven or eight, you may want to fast forward through some of the insignificant others. Director David Cecsarini, during a talkback, said that he "leaned into Hoben's natural rhythm" in the presentation of the piece. From actress, to director, to playwright the responsibility is passed, and yet the crawling pace remains unaccounted for.
Playing as a karaoke track for Mary's disastrous dating life are musicians Jack Forbes Wilson and the Doherty sisters, Marcee and Kelly. While the doo-wop duo and their piano man were inconspicuous, their additions transitioned the show between seasons and moods. The script recommends a degree of musicality, but Cecsarini and the trio really bring the underlying Christmas spirit to life. For a piece that reacts against the commercial joy of the holidays, this musicality presents the jolly atmosphere that surrounds Mary's cynicism.
Duecker has a hefty load in both character and sheer content. To singlehandedly captivate an entire audience is no small feat. She does demand attention, with broad gestures and erratic speech patterns, but despite the intimate venue, audiences are rarely invited to share in her vulnerability. The disconnect between audience and performance makes it seem as if patrons aren't even in attendance, but behind glass. Duecker performs in their general direction, but not directly to them.
Yes, Twelve Dates is a comedy, and as such, it has jokes - no surprise. Being a one-women show, pieces of the script even present themselves as something similar to stand up. In this performance, though, as opposed to allowing the humor to come through the script, and as Cecsarini said, honoring Hoben's writing, the humor is blown to caricature proportions. Twelve Dates is not stand up, but a story about a woman, who ought to be as real to audiences as you and me. Mary's personal journey is lost through a series of strung together punchlines.
Christmas shows that are not your run-of-the-mill sleigh ride do keep the holiday entertainment grounded. If you've felt yourself getting a little too carried away into the winter wonderland, this performance is a healthy dose of normal people holidays. The Twelve Dates of Christmas is a show not for the romantics, or the idealists, but the cynical majority of folks who are just a little sick of God blessing us, everyone. For those, and for Mary, raise a glass of eggnog and kick off your holiday season your own way at Next Act Theatre.