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Word for Word celebrates holidays with literary ‘High Jinx’

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Paul Finocchiaro, left, and Rotimi Agbabiaka appear in “Holiday High Jinx: Bums, Broads and Broadway.” (Courtesy Julie Schuchard)

It’s been awhile since San Francisco’s Word for Word, the inventive troupe that stages literary works verbatim, has produced a holiday-themed show.

Now, “Holiday High Jinx: Bums, Broads and Broadway” comprises two short stories, written and set in the 1930s, bookended by two little essays, also from the 1930s, by New Yorker writer and clever grammarian E.B. White.

Altogether, it’s a charming, lightweight presentation — even though the second story in the lineup, Joseph Mitchell’s “The Cave Dwellers,” is a Depression-era tale of a homeless couple — and is beautifully performed by a six-member ensemble in multiple roles apiece.

Under Sheila Balter’s buoyant direction, the show starts out with actor Paul Finocchiaro, in fedora and vest, playing an old upright piano in what turns out to be Goodtime Charley’s speakeasy. The other players enter dancing, Charleston-style, as choreographed by Christy Funsch.

In the first story, Damon Runyon’s comical “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” bartender Charley (Soren Oliver, hearty and hilarious) and two of his regulars (Jackson Davis, who is the main narrator, and Rotimi Agbabiaka, an ace dancer, as the eponymous Dan, a small-time crook) celebrate Christmas Eve by getting plastered on hot Tom and Jerrys.

When another customer trudges in, dressed as Santa Claus and carrying a sign advertising Moe Lewinsky’s clothing joint, the others cheer him up with so many Tom and Jerrys that he passes out. High jinx ensue, with Lisa Hori-Garcia as Dan’s good-hearted “doll” and Stephanie Hunt funny and touching as her addled grandma.

Mitchell’s more complex story, first published in the 1938 Christmas Eve edition of the New Yorker under a different title, is told by a newspaper reporter (Oliver) assigned to cover the plight of the homeless in winter.

When he happens upon a couple (Finocchiaro and Hunt) living in a cave in Central Park, he writes such an affecting front-page story that readers send in money (a whopping $85 total), and a benefactor (Agbabiaka) materializes to take them under his wing. The couple’s reaction is both unexpected and mystifying.

The show begins with a poignant Christmas greeting by White (published in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section in 1932), narrated by Hunt, and, at evening’s end, Davis and Hori-Garcia find all the nuances in White’s witty essay “Christmas and Relative Pronouns,” in which the difference between which and that takes on whole new levels of meaning.

REVIEW
Holiday High Jinx: Bums, Broads and Broadway
Presented by Word for Word
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. most Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 24
Tickets:$35 to $55
Contact: (866) 811-4111, www.zspace.org

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