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A CurtainUp Review
A Wilder Christmas
By Charles Wright
I shall never marry, Mother. I shall sit in this house beside you forever, as though life were one long, happy Christmas dinner.— Genevieve to her mother Lucia in "The Long Christmas Dinner."

Barbra Wengerd and Giselle Wolf in The Long Christmas Dinner."
Peccadillo's current offering pairs "The Long Christmas Dinner" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha," one-act plays in which Thornton Wilder broached themes and experimented with dramaturgical techniques that appear in his later, longer Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. A balanced combination of laughter and melancholy, Wilder Christmas is a welcome gift, beautifully packaged despite its frugal Off-Off Broadway budget.

Wilder, who was born in 1897, lived for three quarters of the 20th century (he died in December 1975, just as the century's final quarter was about to begin). With the exception of two novels, his major works were completed well before Kennedy arrived in the White House. Wilder's theatrical voice seems gentle and idealistic when compared with the franker, edgier dialogue of his juniors Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, and Edward Albee. In light of the direction American drama was taking after World War Two, Wilder represents the civility and taste of an earlier time, but his writing — especially his work for the stage — is unlike anything else in American literature; and his originality rings out in both plays included in A Wilder Christmas.

"The Long Christmas Dinner" chronicles successive generations of a family, as it celebrates births, success, love and marriage, and as its members adjust to deaths, societal change, failures, and disappointments. The play begins with the first Christmas dinner in a new house; and, as the action proceeds, new relatives arrive as others age and depart, according to the dictates of nature and circumstances. The long feast ends, three generations later, with one family member (Gael Schaefer) alone at the holiday table, reflecting on her kinfolk celebrating Christmas in a new home in a distant state.

"Pullman Car Hiawatha" depicts a group of strangers traveling westward at winter solstice, December 21, 1930. As in Our Town, Wilder concentrates on a remote location (Grover's Corners, Ohio in "Pullman," Grover's Corners, New Hampshire in Our Town) and its position "geographically, meteorologically, astronomically, [and] theologically," as the Stage Manager (Michael Sean McGuinness) phrases it. That's a tall order and the playwright manages it more effectively in the three acts of Our Town for which he won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Director Dan Wackerman has assembled a solid ensemble of 17 actors (all but four are members of Actors' Equity), who demonstrate versatility doubling in the two plays. Scenic and lighting designer Harry Feiner supplies intriguing, distinct environments for the two parts of the bill, but his design for "The Long Christmas Dinner" — a narrow dining table, set with sparkling crystal, against an abstract background of foliage and black space — is particularly appealing to the eye and the imagination.

Both plays portray highs, lows, and the merely quotidian of life in an orderly universe — and there's no doubt that Wilder (brother to a renowned Harvard Divinity School professor) credits the universe with order. Since "Pullman Car Hiawatha" is primarily of interest as a preliminary sketch for Wilder's later plays (and especially Our Town), Wackerman would have been well advised to place it first on the bill, with the lyrical "Long Christmas Dinner" as the evening's culmination. But it would be a mistake to quibble about that. A Wilder Christmas is family-friendly entertainment tailored to the season and appropriate food for reflection at the outset of a new year.

A Wilder Christmas, 2 One-Act Plays by Thornton Wilder
Director: Dan Wackerman
Cast: James Beaman, Victoria Blankenship, Jamil Chokachi, Merissa Czyz, Brad Fryman, LaMar Giles, LaWanda Hopkins, Michael Sean McGuinness, Kristin Parker, John Pasha, Jeremy Russial, Barbara Salant, Gael Schaefer, Anna Marie Sell, Rafe Terrizzi, Barbra Wengerd, and Giselle Wolf
Scenic & Lighting Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Marianne Custer
Sound Design: Quentin Chiapetta
Properties Design: Nelly Reyes
Wig Design: Robert Pickens
Production Stage Manager: Jamil Chokachi
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission
Presented by The Peccadillo Theater Company (Dan Wackerman, Artistic Director; Kevin Kennedy, Managing Director)
Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street (at 8th Avenue)
From 12/3/15; opened 12/8/15; closing 1/10/16
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a December 7th press performance
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