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Meat & greet

Season's Greetings provides a holiday roast

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I watched Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings at Georgia Ensemble Theatre while experiencing a periodic, low-level irritation. I enjoyed the production just fine, particularly with its cast of some of the area's best comedic actors in the sprightly but thoughtful farce.

What annoyed me was that I'd never seen Season's Greetings until last week. The play dates back to 1980, but seems to have fallen through the cracks of Atlanta theaters during the time that I've been reviewing plays. So remembering all the dreadful or mediocre Christmas shows I've suffered though, when I could have seen Season's Greetings, I feel somehow cheated. Season's Greetings, where have you been all my life?

Playhouses may have some misgivings about Season's Greetings because it's English – and not quaint A Christmas Carol English, but unenlightened bourgeois English. Plus, the play is only loosely "about" Christmas, even though it takes place over the holidays. Even a show as hilariously caustic as The Santaland Diaries has its moments of grudging respect for the love and joy the season can instill in others.

Season's Greetings instead focuses on middle-class desperation and the suburban anxieties that bubble over during the holiday pressure cooker. The play takes place at the home of Belinda (Dori Garziano) and Neville (Mark Pitt) as they play host to their family and friends, including pregnant Pattie (Megan Hayes) and her financially floundering husband, Eddie (Scott Warren), along with childless Bernard (Bill Murphey) and his boozing wife Phyllis (Shelly McCook).

Some arguments flare up every year, like the way crabby Harvey (Peter Thomasson) complains about the tedium of Bernard's annual Boxing Day puppet show. This year, fresh tension arises when spinsterish Rachel (Kristi Casey) brings as a guest Clive (Chris Ensweiler), an acclaimed first-time novelist – of whom none of the family has heard. Amid disastrous lamb dinners and malfunctioning Christmas toys, Belinda and Clive discover a mutual attraction.

The slapstick elements dress up the play's intellectual satire of artists as well as their audience. The family's favorite cultural activity is clustering around the violent Hollywood action movie that Harvey cheers throughout the first scene. Ayckbourn means to do more than lament the intellectual shortcomings of the middle class, though, with Bernard and Clive proving to be poor role models as artists. Bernard turns a hilariously deaf ear to the needs of his audience (his puppet version of "The Three Little Pigs" is a masterpiece of tedium), while Clive proves to be more of a cad than a moral exemplar. While Ensweiler specializes in physical comedy at Georgia Shakespeare, he carries the role's more sly, sexy dimensions with ease.

In plays such as The Norman Conquests, Ayckbourn's work frequently finds a humorous equivalent to the "theater of menace" of fellow Englishman Harold Pinter. Threat and despair hang in the atmosphere of Pinter's dramas, but Ayckbourn displays a similar gift at setting up comedic suspense, which director Shannon Eubanks effectively sustains. In Season's Greetings, we brace ourselves for inevitable blowups when characters repeatedly leave the front door open during the winter weather, or we hear reports of Phyllis' off-stage kitchen mishaps. Only an actress with McCook's facility for physical comedy could live up to the Phyllis we imagine when we finally see her.

Season's Greetings suffers from a few missteps. At times the actors play loud and broad, hitting punch lines harder than necessary, when a more deadpan approach would be just as effective. David Manuel's set is bizarrely generic. Except for a small cluster of family photos on one wall, and a little nook for kid's toys, the space looks sterile and anonymous, more like the lobby of a small hotel than a home where people actually live.

Despite a few touches that reveal the play's origins from more than 25 years ago, Season's Greetings' jokes and satiric targets remain remarkably relevant, and the cast seems to enjoy volleying Ayckbourn's witty ripostes off each other. Season's Greetings proves fresh despite its age, like the opposite of the kind of Christmas fruitcake that tastes 100 years old when it's just out of the oven.

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