Bear with me a moment as I resuscitate an old horse for one more round of flogging.
Mired somewhere between tradition and bad habit, annual productions of The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol are, unless you're 5 years old, not so much artistic events as they are seasonal rituals. For audiences, they're a drag-the-family obligation. For theaters, they're a chance to raise some cash. And for critics, they're an excuse to bitch and moan (even those of us who understand that, in the great Punch and Judy show pitting art against commerce, art's going to stuffer a serious beatdown each December).
At the Barn Players, that art-commerce division is even more sharply drawn than at most theaters. The community theater's upcoming season starts with the seat-filling evergreen You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown but quickly veers to Closer (a c-word-spewing hate-athon) and then to Nine (a Fellini-inspired musical from Arthur Kopit).
Their hit Christmas show milks this schism. Inspecting Carol is a kinetic farce set backstage at a fictional Midwestern theater's production of A Christmas Carol. At one point, the artistic director pouts, "We have an opportunity to actually make money once a year. You're begrudging us that?"
No, actually. Inspecting Carol offers something that other mercenary Christmas shows don't: real, invigorating fun. By the opening-night climax — just when other shows would have been explaining what Christmas is all about — the already funny Carol really kicked in, leaving much of the audience doubled over with laughter.
That climax consists of highlights from a disastrous Christmas Carol, one that rewards our habitual attendance at the real thing. As Marley gets his chains tangled and the ghosts lose their lines and the set crumbles about them all, the laughs come so big and fast that any complaints with cast, crew or the season itself are dashed away.
That's handy because some of the setup is pretty dumb. (It's almost never stupid, though, which is different.) Staring down a financial crisis, a theater company with too many hams and too little rehearsal time preps its annual slog through Dickens. When word arrives that the National Endowment for the Arts has dispatched an inspector to determine whether this crew should continue getting government funds, suspicion falls on Wayne Wellacre (Bill Pelletier), a wanna-be actor who has recently appeared at the theater.
With his horn-rims and his sad, Sears-looking tie, his wispy goatee and his great, church-bell shape, Pelletier is definitive as an old-school nerd. He's funny, too, carrying on in an excitable rasp. Auditioning for artistic director Zorah (Trista Lee Stone), he screeches through the opening of Richard III like the old ladies on Monty Python's Flying Circus. To illustrate the bit about "our dreadful marches," he goose-steps with his index finger held over his lip to indicate a mustache; beaming afterward, convinced he's nailed it, he bobs back and forth like a buoy.
Most of the other performances hover at (or slightly over) the community-theater standard, with three key exceptions: Eryn Hamer brings a blasé exasperation to stage manager M.J. and then a wild eagerness to the Christmas Carol role of Martha Cratchit, Sally Jenkins' on-and-off accents delight, and Aric Wright is strong as the company's socially conscious Scrooge, a self-pitying hippie who wants to recast the Ghost of Christmas Past as a giant baby, à la Dickens, but also to represent American neglect of Third World suffering. Only occasionally does an actor here veer into the bad, but Samuel T. Davis confounds as Walter, a token black character. He seems to swallow as he speaks, resulting in an unpredictable croak that sounds like Esther Rolle on Good Times. (His whatchoo talkin' 'bout hurt my soul.)
Pelletier's Wellacre is so terrifically awful an actor that Zorah and company assume he must be the NEA inspector operating undercover. Their decision to cast him anyway is, of course, wholly unbelievable — but then, so is almost everything else here. Other than its sizable laughs and an occasional insight into what financial reality can drive theaters to do, Daniel Sullivan's script (written with the Seattle Repertory Theatre) is workmanlike. Director Nino Casisi stages the finale with lively clarity, managing to make the most ridiculous situations seem to arise naturally from the characters themselves. I wish that, earlier on, his characters sounded more natural in conversation, especially when angry. The occasional swearing is overdetermined, coming out the way it does when junior high teachers are moved to curse in front of the class — the bad word itself becomes the point instead of just a sharp accent spicing the point.
Inspecting Carol's payoffs, though, are worth whatever we might suffer beforehand, onstage or off. Whatever gripes you walk in with, whatever annoyances you suffer in the first hour, by the end, after you're treated to half an hour of wild, throat-clearing laughter, you just won't care.