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Thin Ice Capades

Local playwrights take a PushPush holiday

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A bit of variety keeps Christmas from being humdrum, and PushPush Theater's Holiday on Thin Ice provides a seasonal alternative. It's a holiday-themed play that's neither A Christmas Carol nor the kind of spoof on Dickens that the theater has offered for the past three years. Breaking that habit seems to have gotten some new creative juices flowing.

As a collection of short plays from Atlanta writers (with one out-of-towner), Holiday on Thin Ice provides a vehicle for local playwrights to convey a range of yuletide experiences involving families, friends, kids, co-workers, entertainers and shut-ins. Of PushPush's Christmas "album," one of the shorts is quite estimable, a couple are agreeable trifles, and the rest make you believe that they took the word "Thin" in the title a little too literally.

Holiday's highlight is Karen Wurl's "Personal Care, or The Secret Life of the Proletariat," a comedy involving supermarket employees at Christmastime. Wurl has a keen eye and ear for the different archetypes of retail workers, from the spazzy teenager (Tim Sweeney) to the authoritative manager (Tal Harris) to the misplaced artist -- in this case, a film student (Sarah Falkenburg) too enamored of a paycheck to quit.

"Personal Care" amusingly shows both the filmmaker's unrequited crush on the manager and a portion of her latest screenplay, which naturally is about a film student working at a grocery store. Full of funny speeches about the American "economic caste system" and sharp, tossed-off lines like "You're 17, you can afford to disbelieve the obvious," Wurl's work has both confidence and economy, eliciting laughter while always staying faithful to life.

Rob Nixon offers a pair of plays, with the zany "Gift of the Magpie" borrowing a bit liberally from some old Warner Brothers cartoons. A lonely fellow (a masked Dan Bollinger) is visited by a singing magpie (Sweeney, operating an expressive puppet), which serenades him with Christmas carols but never shuts up. The bird becomes a madcap tormentor, offering evangelical sermons at Easter and WWII history lessons on July 4 until the hero is at his wit's end.

Nixon also pens the minor key "Turkey or Ham," in which a waitress (Shellie Sims) gets unwillingly dragged into the argument between an elderly father (Rob Parnell) and his son (Patrick Wood) at their Christmas meal. Food is even more the focus of Janece Shaffer's "Pig," in which a Christian couple (Tal Harris and Shelby Hofer) obliviously serve pulled pork to their Jewish friends (Wood and Caroline Masclet) on the first night of Hanukkah.

"Pig" finds chuckles in its premise, as when Wood wonders, "What are they going to serve us next, Communion wafers?" But it also comes across as contrived and sitcom-sized, with the characters proving either grossly insensitive or hypersensitive, and some concluding words about the true spirit of Hanukkah seem like a lecture for kids. In an especially clever touch, the actors don't consume real meat or mime imaginary dishes but consume Christmas candy, with red Twizzlers standing in for ribs.

R. Cary Bynum's "Jingle & Jangle" relies on the dubious assumption that two foul-mouthed, New Jerseyite midgets (Sweeney and Bollinger) auditioning as Christmas elves is inherently hilarious. Tim Habeger's concluding "He KNOWS," about a group of kids secretly waiting for Santa outdoors at night, proves almost terminally precocious. But it has some enjoyable moments: When a boy suggests that Santa might not exist, the others turn on him like a scene out of Lord of the Flies.

Citing the darkness of the work, PushPush has placed Murray Mednick's "Baby, Jesus!" at 10 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., putting it at arm's length from the rest of the show. The rest of Thin Ice's plays aren't particularly bleak, although they tend to suggest that the holidays are times to be endured more than enjoyed. Kasia Kowalczyk's set design, which features walls painted with perhaps hundreds of candy canes, is the most genuinely festive aspect of the production, and looking at them can put you in the Christmas spirit in spite of yourself.

Holiday on Thin Ice plays through Dec. 31 at PushPush Theater, 1123 Zonolite Road, Suite 3, with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 7 p.m. Sun. $10. 404-892-7876.

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