American theater long ago sided with three-act storytelling over modernist prickliness, so audiences don't often find themselves fighting through a play such as Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon, a show that endeavors to capture, through repetition and randomness, life's repetition and randomness. That's understandable. A theater has to attract a paying audience. Besides, the repetition and the randomness of work-dominated American lives have already been captured perfectly in one artistic medium: old-school video games, where your only reward for success is doing the same thing — faster.
I thought of those old games a couple of times during Miss Witherspoon, a dark, messy, sometimes trying, sometimes hilarious 90-minute philosophical comedy. Jan Rogge stars — and achieves new marvelousness — as the titular Miss Witherspoon, a drab British woman of frumpy middle age who offs herself, reaches the afterlife and refuses reincarnation as a matter of principle. It's a choice that any PacMan I sent to a pointless death might have longed for: Why return to life and suffer more?
Much of this is funny. Some of it's dreary, too, especially Miss Witherspoon's long circular discussions with Maryamma, her afterlife caseworker (played as a new-age bureaucrat by Amy Urbina). Good jokes, such as one about the Jewish afterlife, grow tired with repetition, and Maryamma's insistence that Miss Witherspoon's soul should learn a lesson in each life, to make progress toward a state of nirvana, is too pat to fit the show's anguished middle scenes.
That's where Durang dares the blackest of comedy. Miss Witherspoon, against her will, is reincarnated as the unloved daughter of vile trailer dwellers. (Matthew Rapport and Dina Kirschenbaum are both funny and cretinous.) Fat, drug-addicted, beaten by her mother, this kid never has a chance, and these scenes sear. Co-directors Cynthia Levin and Steven Eubank show disparate strengths: Levin's well-acted extremes and Eubank's on-the-cheap absurdities. Like Durang's script, they never find a consistent tone, but that might be the point.
Meanwhile, everyone works hard to make up for the despair. Rapport lives up to his great surprise entrance as a beloved hero of fantasy films. Jesus turns up and may be reincarnated as a ham sandwich. Kirschenbaum unleashes hilarious hell and almost saves a dog of a scene in which a mother tries to buy off the witnesses to her son's drunk-driving accident. There's hope; there's hurt; and there's a goofy, anti-apocalyptic ending that almost makes up for the dreary patches. But mostly there's Rogge playing women and babies, puppies and teens, always tender yet dignified and, like the show itself, bothersome but endearing.
For better or worse, Musical Theater Heritage's A Spectacular Christmas already feels like a tradition in its second year. The gag is that George Harter (MTH's producer, dramaturge, mascot and twinkly eyed patriarch) has cast a mob of local singers in a Crown Center Christmas show; when the audience shows up, Harter pretends that he's in his apartment before the show, and the singers just happen by, gulp some punch and belt a number or two, just like in a Judy Garland special from the 1960s. (Pianist Jeremy Watson is the first to arrive, which is a handy coincidence.) Then, after intermission and seasonal hijinks, the audience gets a stately, serious Crown Center Christmas concert.
It's a fine gag. Harter and director Sarah Crawford have lined up some excellent singers. James Wright gently polishes "I'll Be Home for Christmas" until it glows. Izzie Baldwin gets to showcase a voice of tremendous force and beauty, and gets to drop to the floor to make carpet angels.
Then there's the tradition: Harter thinks of his cast and audience as family; he invites anyone he knows to drop by and take a number. At these moments, the show feels like a recital. Also troubling: The first half tends toward chaos. Expanding "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from flirty duet into a raucous, multi-part extravaganza wrecks the song, and a medley of silly-voice novelty numbers grates. The high spirits aggravate a bit, especially when things suddenly turn sentimental. When James Wright shares an affecting story of his young daughter watching snow fall, eyes moisten in the crowd. But the guy behind me was still humming that timeless annoyance "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas."