Crystal Finn, Tony Ward and Joey Collins peek into Beasley's Christmas Party.
It's not often something genuinely new - or at least genuinely true - gets added to our local Christmas traditions, so Merrimack Rep's dramatization of Beasley's Christmas Party deserves special attention. I can't say this literate staging of Booth Tarkington's short story is a great show - it's small, even slight, in size and scope (three actors, about 70 minutes). And its message is an old one - the old Christmas message, in fact, about love and your neighbor, etc., blah blah blah. Its virtues are that it seems sincere, and that its old tale is tinged with understated romance and whimsy. It is, in short, the genuine article. If you don't care for the genuine article, then you won't care for it; if you do, then you won't want to miss it.
Tarkington (at left) made a wildly successful career out of nostalgic ruminations on the passage of time and the loss of American innocence (once a celebrity who landed on the cover of Time, he's best remembered at one remove, for the hauntingly stylized film of his novel The Magnificent Ambersons by Orson Welles). I won't spoil the narrative surprises of Beasley's Christmas Party, a short story from 1909, which reveal both Tarkington's virtues and flaws: shot through with conventional sentiment, the story trades in obvious cliches; it's filled with lovely spinsters, lonely bachelors, and inspiring cripples, but it never cloys because it's so delicately, even reticently, rendered. Indeed, what touches us most about Tarkington - his awareness that our lives are haunted by the spectre of lost opportunity - is always in evidence in Beasley, however much it relies on pseudo-Dickensian pathos.
And the production at Merrimack - which began its life at New York's Keen Theatre - seeems to know just how to translate Tarkington's courtly spirit to the stage. The sugar never congeals into sap in this production because it's so wry and fleet of foot. The set is spare (Beowulf Boritt has built impromptu Christmas trees of Victorian bric-a-brac), and the adaptation accurate (indeed, perhaps adapter C.W. Munger hangs on to a few too many of Tarkington's genteel circumlocutions). Best of all, director Carl Forsman is confident enough to never push any of his effects. But then he has been lucky in his three able actors - Tony Ward, Joey Collins, and Crystal Finn, who do double and triple duty (sometimes within the same scene) to tell Tarkington's winsome story. Indeed, I longed to see these three sink their teeth into something more substantial - they're all natural Shavians, which means they can also handle Maugham, Barrie and Wilde - and maybe even Ibsen. What a rare treat it would be, to see any of those authors done straight up on a local professional stage! It would almost be like Christmas . . .