It’s that time of year again—the lights twinkle, the air feels crisp, and wafting on the breeze comes that classic holiday refrain: “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
Oh, no, wait, that’s only in the holidays of my dreams, and of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, whose marvelously irascible old Scrooge remains a curmudgeon unmatched, a hero of sorts to those of us who weary of the amped-up, credit-fueled Frankenstein’s monster that is the American yule. It’s no mystery, in a season whose all-but-inescapable traditions have come to include at least 12 days’ worth of Carolingian stage adaptations, why an actor would salivate over the chance to don the miser’s grotty old nightcap; the modern archetype of all that’s cheerfully wicked, Scrooge is a plum of a part, a chance to showboat and snarl and still come away looking like the good guy at the end of the evening.
Why anyone should want to try reinventing the old cuss—now that’s a tougher question, and one that’s not answered convincingly by Arena Stage’s uneven Christmas Carol 1941. The world-premiere update, commissioned by Arena from the Baltimore-based playwright and translator James Magruder, moves the action to Washington and to the December of its title year, as a tense nation mobilizes in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. Dressed in ’40s finery and swinging (fitfully) to a few tepid original tunes by Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger, Magruder’s version dispenses with the traditional spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, entrusting its antihero’s redemption to a trio of D.C. monuments, sprung from their pedestals and swanning about the Fichandler stage. Winged Victory takes a break from commemorating the doughboys of World War I to remind the old sinner of his palmier days (and also, in this version, of the orphanage childhood that seems to be behind his brooding). Freedom steps down from atop the Capitol dome to escort her charge to a USO dance (which proves marginally lively, at best). And the eloquent Saint-Gaudens graveyard monument known locally as “Grief” appears at last—at long last, in this two-act, two-hour-plus Carol—bringing dreadful visions of war and its inevitable consequences.
The unwilling center of their attentions is no grasping countinghouse proprietor, but one Elijah Strube, once and future war profiteer, played with so singular a lack of charm (and in such an unflattering union suit) by James Gale that you almost hope the visitations will prove fruitless. Not that Magruder gives the poor fellow much help: Instead of the timeless “Bah, Humbug,” Strube’s response to cheery holiday sentiment and Rooseveltian radio rhetoric alike is a terse and singularly American eruption: “Bullcrap!”
God help us, every one.
In the spirit of the holidays, I suppose it’s worth noting what works in Molly Smith’s staging, starting with the get-up imagined for Strube’s late business partner by costumer Vicki R. Davis. Marley, who usually arrives dragging chains, erupts in this version from an old oak filing cabinet, on the loose from a paper-trail purgatory and looking like nothing so much as a fudged tax return somebody’s tried to hurry through a shredder. “Washington has but one commodity,” he groans, upholstered head to foot in forms-in-triplicate, “and this is the trail of my misdeeds.” It’s both apt and funny—and the reliable character actor Hugh Nees is intense enough about it that you almost forget to wonder, irreverently, what an eternity of paper cuts might feel like.
Other assets: Tim Getman, endearingly square as a dollar-a-year man boarding at the house of Lawrence Redmond’s Henry Schroen (this version’s Bob Cratchit). Nancy Robinette’s maternal Margarette Schroen, warm always and fierce as needed, and Clinton Brandhagen’s impetuous Butch Schroen, the late-adolescent Tiny Tim stand-in whose fervor to enlist is a darker shadow of the original’s optimism. Also Christopher Bloch’s damaged Albert Schroen, a war-veteran uncle who has no parallel in the Dickens tale but adds something quietly meaningful to this one.
Magruder and Smith truly bring the story home just twice, both times in moments that feel like fairly fail-safe heartbreakers. No, scratch that: Give Magruder credit for deft writing in a denouement flourish involving Bloch’s character, even if content-wise it feels a trifle manipulative.
It’s the other moment—part of Grief’s prophetic dream—that feels like shorthand. It’s been pivotal in any number of movies, that march by the Marine in his dress blues to a mother’s front door, to the point that it’s become a kind of directorial cliché. And yet the letter he brings carries such unbearable freight: You see the actors setting it up, with the mother and the approaching Marine and a singer crooning a lullaby over a boy’s still body on a faraway battlefield, and you begin to sneer at the baldness of the manipulation—and you stop, throttled, by the way the image resolves itself. The toll of war, it turns out, is never to be sneered at, not even when it’s being used as a bludgeon in a half-baked Christmas cash cow, and certainly not in these our unhappy times.