Off the Wall Theatre explores the dangers of doing deliberately bad theatre for comic effect in The Great Scrooge Disaster. Written by Off the Wall’s Dale Gutzman, the brief musical comedy misses a few opportunities for clever comedy in favor of inoffensively light humor that misses more often than it hits. Gutzman’s script has cast of Off the Wall regulars playing themselves and characters in a production of A Christmas Carol that has been beset with technical problems and an outbreak of illness. Gutzman goes for the easy humor in a show that might have been a darkly comic exploration of something far deeper.
Gutzman plays himself as a last-minute replacement for the actor playing Scrooge. Gutzman develops a comically confused and bewildered version of himself drifting in and out of dialogue from other plays as he fumbles his way through the early stages of A Christmas Carol. The cast of regulars shifts between frustration with and concerned for Gutzman, who really DOES seem to be crumbling beneath the stress of everything. Gutzman’s acting here is really quite good. (It’s like he wrote the role for himself or something.) Gutzman flounders. A cast is on edge. Regulars like Kristin Pagenkopf and Lawrence J Lukasavage manage a balance between themselves and the actors they’re pretending to be onstage. In subtle moments of silence between lines, the energy seems to be reaching towards a deep, dark comedy on the nature of reality onstage reflecting into itself.
A production of a play about a comically bad play performed by actors playing actors could have been a darkly humorous examination of the very idea of quality. There’s potentially deep humor in watching actors play themselves in a potentially bad play about a bad play satirizing the continued success of the Milwaukee Rep’s annual production. Something like The Great Scrooge Disaster could have worked on multiple levels. A comedy that’s written to be bad might have been brilliant given the right direction. Instead, Gutzman’s humor is cheesy, breezy, superficial comedy that ranges from mild injuries onstage to technical miscues to a door that never seems to open.
The show has a few fun moments that could have been accentuated a bit more. There are some sharp elements of comedy punctuating the show: James Strange has clever comic instincts as an actor reluctant to enter the collapsing production. Caitlin Kujawski Compton has a firm graps of the comedy of Christmas Present who is determined to go through with her scene even if it means occasionally breaking with character in comically poised frustration. Towards the end when both Gutzman AND the actor the had come-in to replace him as Scrooge are both determined to make it through to the end of the show. Gutzman is seen in a long scarf that’s being crocheted as he wears it for no clear reason. Somewhat witty bits like this don’t add-up to a fun show, but they DO suggest a better show could have come out of the overall energy onstage.
The one clearly bright point in the whole production is Gutzman’s choice of music. He’s found some really charming alternatives to the traditional Christmas musical fare that firmly avoids the kind of schmaltzy sentiment so often littering Christmas shows. It may not be perfect, but The Great Scrooge Disaster is definitely an odd, little alternative to bigger live theatre shows this holiday season. Even though I didn’t personally like it that much, I’m really happy this one is almost completely sold out. Even the least appealing live theatre is worth seeing over the big, ugly live performances and big screen offerings this holiday season. It’s nice to know that Gutzman’s energy can sell out so many performances of a show like this before it even opens.
Off the Wall Theatre presents The Great Scrooge Disaster through Dec. 31 at 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Off the Wall online.