In England, the Christmas feasting and drinking continues for three days, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day.
That's a long time to be closed in with relatives, especially if you don't get along all that well.
Alan Ayckbourn mines the comedy that scenario presents by taking one family's tensions from a simmer to a boil in "Seasons Greetings," playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie through Dec. 18.
The cast, an assortment of Chicago theater pros, nimbly portrays the oddball family members, who include a hypochondriac, a weapons freak, a mousy young woman, a doctor obsessed with putting on a boring puppet show for the kids, an unfulfilled wife, two slacker husbands who won't lift a finger to help and a visiting single man who injects sexual tension into the mix.
Director BJ Jones skillfully builds up the level of annoyances between the various nemeses in the family — such as Bernard, the meek doctor who just wants to put on his puppet show, and Harvey, the hawkish, combat-obsessed relative who badgers him every step of the way — to not just one, but two dramatic crescendoes.
Heidi Kettenring admirably functions as the center of the play. As the hostess, Belinda, she balances her domestic chores with her sexier side, which appears when she just can't seem to help herself from seducing her wallflower sister's new boyfriend.
That's preceded by a cleverly ironic scene in which she reflects to her husband Neville, played by Matt Schwader, that they're a reasonably happy couple after eight and a half years of marriage. All the time she's talking about their love for each other, he's concentrating on fixing a toy car's engine and utters only the occasional grunt and "uh huh" in response. It's a joke women will appreciate.
Other notable performances included Amy J. Carle, who so stole her scenes as Phyllis, the overly dramatic housewife, that I wished Ayckbourn had written a bigger part for the character.
And Steve Haggard seemed to be channeling Hugh Grant at his "I'm a bumbling but charming single guy; where are the ladies?" best.
Keith Pitts' two-level set design is a standout from the first moment one enters the theater and sees it, through every scene of the show, where it functions well and accommodates the large cast, even when they're doing different things onstage simultaneously.
As farce, "Season's Greetings" doesn't evoke the sweeping or inspiring qualities of such holiday fare as "A Christmas Carol" or "It's a Wonderful Life." If your Christmas season wouldn't be complete without such heartfelt stories, see those instead — or in addition to.
But if you're rolling your eyes at Christmas carols and/or enjoy tongue-in-cheek works that are alternately dry, zany and very British, you won't find one better performed than Northlight's production.
Note: Northlight is recommending the play for ages 13 and up, but I wouldn't recommend bringing kids younger than 15 or 16; the infidelity scene might make younger teens uncomfortable.
IF YOU GO:
- Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30 pm (except Nov. 29 and Dec. 13), Wednesdays at 1 p.m. (except Nov. 30) and 7:30 p.m. (except Dec. 7), Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 and 7 p.m. (except Dec. 4 and 18).
- Tickets are $25 to $60. Tickets for those 25 and under are $10 at any performance.
- Northlight Theatre performs at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie, Ill.
- Box office: (847) 673-6300 or buy tickets online.