Review: Nothing like a ‘Wild Christmas Binge’

If literature ever produced a likely candidate for anti-depressants, it’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit. The long-suffering wife in “A Christmas Carol” has plenty to be down in the dumps about: she’s poor and female in early 19th-century London, her kids are starving, and her husband works for the original Scrooge.

Mrs. Cratchit’s a minor character in Dickens’ holiday classic, but she takes center stage in “Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge.” Christopher Durang’s satire, which opened in a new San Francisco Playhouse production last weekend, gives her a contemporary persona with a self-destructive edge: when this Mrs. C. (played by the excellent Joan Mankin) walks into a bar on Christmas Eve and says “Give me a Tequila Surprise and point me in the direction of the London Bridge,” we know she’s about to get hammered, find that well-known landmark and jump.

Fortunately, no one dies in the world of Durang, whose earlier plays include “Beyond Therapy” and “Laughing Wild.” Theplaywright specializes in postmodern angst, not tragedy, and Mrs. Cratchit’s predicament gives him plenty of chances to lampoon the Scrooges of today. Bouncing back and forth between Dickens’ time and our own, this “Binge” is a surreal fantasia with references to “Oliver Twist,” “The Gift of the Magi” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as well as celebrity adoptions, Enron, “Touched By an Angel” and those relentlessly cheerful holiday shows that come (thankfully!) but once a year.

The play follows the outline of “Carol,” more or less. In Durang’s view, everyone’s dysfunctional: Scrooge’s “Bah, humbugs” are chalked up to Tourette’s syndrome, Bob Cratchit is an obsessive who can’t stop rescuing orphans (Mrs. Cratchit stashes them in the root cellar); the Ghost of Christmas Past is a mouthy UPS driver with no sense of direction, and Tiny Tim is an obnoxious little brat with a martyr complex.

It’s a promising premise, but director Joy Carlin hasn’t mined it for maximum laughs. Part of the problem is the 2002 script itself; some of the references (Leona Helmsley, Mia Farrow) feel dated, and repeating bits (including one with the Ghost and a stun gun) wear thin.

And Carlin and her design team — Kim A. Tolman (sets), Jon Tracy (lights) and Valera Coble (costumes) — leave the transitions between scenes and eras feeling clunky. Music direction by Terry Rucker yields a couple of middling numbers.

The cast proves likewise variable. There are strong performances by Keith Burkland as the big-hearted Bob and Victor Talmadge as mean-spirited Scrooge; Lizzie Calogero makes a winning Tiny Tim. But Cathleen Riddley’s Ghost pushes too hard for laughs, and Rucker squanders his opportunity as Jacob Marley.

In the end, it’s Mankin – one of the Bay Area’s most reliable actors – who carries the production. She’s comic gold, from her funny first entrance to the surprise twist that redeems her at the end. Watch her “Binge,” and you’ll never look at “A Christmas Carol” quite the same way again.

IF YOU GO

Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge

Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Jan. 12

Tickets:$38

Contact: (415) 677-9596 or www.ticketweb.com

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