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Shopping spree for Jesus

The Bench views Christmas from the mall

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The theatrical team of Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee switches from naughty to nice with its new holiday play, The Bench. Through the '80s, the actor/playwrights concocted gonzo comedies and feverish spiritual satires for Atlanta's Southern Theatre Conspiracy, giving their work titles like Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends: A Final Evening With the Illuminati.

But The Bench finds them filled with an uncharacteristic level of seasonal cheer. Directed by Jessica Phelps West and having its world premiere on the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage, the play includes plenty of pointed, sarcastic laughs and a sharp critique of over-commercialized Christmases. Nevertheless, The Bench rests on a spirit of generosity and warmth.

The play's lead characters belong to a demographic only slightly less populous than soccer moms: husbands who occupy shopping mall benches, guarding purchases while their spouses continue buying. "These are wife-waitin' benches," Sam Jenkins (Lee) explains to Jeff Carlson (Larson), who chance to meet on the day after Thanksgiving at a shopping mecca called "Ameri-Mall" (Elaine Williams' set is amusingly realistic).

Sam has bench-waiting down to a science and has even written "The Ten Commandments of Bench Ethics," which include being bored and uncomfortable. For him, the point is not to have a good time, but to suffer like a penitent so the wife will owe him a future favor. Over the shopping season, Sam and Jeff strike up a friendship as they continue running into each other at the same bench, although Sam starts to wonder why Jeff's wife is so conspicuously absent.

The titular bench gives the duo a vantage point to consider the extremes of holiday-related stress and materialism gone out of control. Sam grumps that everything about modern life has changed for the worse: "If it can't be like it used to be, why bother?" Their seat also proves conveniently close to the mall's performance stage, which is frequently commandeered by an eerily chipper trio of department store singers, played to unctuous perfection by Jennifer Courtade, Donna Wright and Steve Coulter.

Cheesy singers with more enthusiasm than talent tend to be cliches (nearly every incarnation of "Saturday Night Live" has included some), but The Bench's team has just the right "Up with shopping!" energy level -- and Courtade's eyes have an almost scary intensity. A similarly familiar but cleverly drawn role is Willy (Coulter), a street lunatic draped in tinsel. He claims to hear mysterious threats in Christmas carols, with, "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!" becoming, "We're beginning to poison all your neckties!" But when Willy sincerely sings "O Holy Night," it's a moment of oddball transcendence.

As Sam and Jeff, Larson and Lee play to their strengths with regional accents -- Lee being a drawling good ol' boy from Atlanta and Larson a slightly Scandinavian native of Minneapolis: "Yah, sure, they got the sales," he says of the Ameri-Mall's popularity. The pair's comfort level with each other effectively translates to the instant camaraderie Sam and Jeff find as a pair of middle-aged, Middle American guys. Some of The Bench's most appealing moments are their casual chats about the karma of parking and fishing.

Larson and Lee give The Bench plenty of zany moments as well, including a quick-change version of A Christmas Carol performed by three actors in five minutes. And such requisite Southern Theatre Conspiracy touches as a chainsaw and Lee in drag are employed for Jeff's childhood memory of a wintry Christmas near the Canadian border.

The Bench can overplay its second-act scenes of angry confrontations and reconciliation, and tries a little harder than necessary to tie up its positive sentiments in a neat package by the end. Some of its jokes are contrived -- but they're still good jokes.

The Bench is the rare Christmas play that offers fresh insights. At one point, the department store singers proclaim, "It's always Christmas at the mall!" -- a statement that, if you either love malls or hate Christmas, turns out to be true.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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