…but what do they think about us? Review: “Looking at Christmas”

Have you ever wondered, as you gaze at the latest incarnation of the Macy’s holiday windows, what the figures would think and say about all the people who stared at them?

And the best part is, it’s not even the main plot.

When the head writer of a major children’s cartoon writes a play, expectations are high. We know he can write funny material for the small screen, but can he translate that to the live-action stage? Answer – yes. Steven Banks, of Spongebob Squarepants fame, has written a fantastic Christmas comedy he calls Looking at Christmas. We follow the easily excited Charmian (Allison Buck), an aspiring theater actress (the h in her name is silent), and John (Michael Micalizzi), a writer of movie novelizations, as she drags him along on a window shopping tour of Midtown Manhattan.

At first it seems like your typical boy-meets-girl cookie cutter plot, but as soon as they step away from the window we get the view of the other side, so to speak. The characters in the display are fully aware of Charmian and John’s world, but more so of the world they exist in – they comment on both the meta-couple and their own situation and story. The window figures’ personalities are, to say the least, not quite what we would expect. They snark at the absurdity of the Christmas tradition they display

We never get two window display or two scenes with the main characters in a row. This might have been a little risky on Banks’s part – a friend who saw the same show thought that this format, and actually the window scenes themselves, took too much away from the main plot. I disagree. Both of the major settings exist in conjunction with each other, but the window scenes occupy a distinct environment. The constant switching back and forth may be a hassle, but most of the window scenes provide a certain levity that the main plot doesn’t, giving the viewer a break from the increasingly heavy undertones of the background events surrounding Charmian and John.

Throughout the street scenes of the play, we find out John’s and Charmian’s backstories. John, who was fired from his job just that afternoon, is trying to get out of a Christmas party where “everyone gets drunk as fast as possible,” while Charmian is dealing with a boyfriend back home who doesn’t want her to make it big in New York. There is a slight awkwardness between the two that can only be described as “this girl I just met wants me to show her around?” Whether Banks was striving for this feeling isn’t obvious, but it adds to the realism of the situation.

There are no fancy stage effects – the only props the actors use are a table/box thing near the back of the stage and whatever they carry. In a world where the opening dates of extravagant musicals are pushed back further and further (here’s to you, Spider-Man), this is quite refreshing. It does take a certain willing suspension of disbelief in order for one to imagine the scene they are walking around in (in fact, if you’ve been to all of the windows they visit, you can picture the scenes exactly as they would appear in real life…) but the great acting really does away with the need for any major props.

The lighting throughout the show is genius – not only does it illuminate the actors well, it also gives the impression of the light from the window displays reflecting off of them.

All in all, this is a very good show to watch if you are bored of all of the traditional Christmas goings-on being rehashed again and again, or if you are simply in the mood for a good laugh this season.

Looking at Christmas is performed at The Flea Theater, 41 White St, Tribeca, NY, and is written by Steven Banks, directed by Jim Simpson, and features The Bats, The Flea’s resident repertory company. The play closes December 30. Visit www.theflea.org for more information.

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