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For those who quail annually at the prospect of treacly Christmas revels, this week’s caustic comedies offer relief of a sort. In both Round House Theater’s Season’s Greetings and MetroStage’s Reckless, holiday tensions run high, spirits are raised only in glasses, and the well-meaning folks who don Santa suits come to bad ends—one getting shot, another drinking himself to death.

Alan Ayckbourn may not have penned Season’s Greetings specifically to explain why more suicides are attempted at Christmastime than at any other time of year, but the play is pretty much a comic primer on holiday despair. The revelers who gather at Neville and Belinda’s country house approach the seasonal festivities with a dread born of experience. No one, it seems, has ever escaped this family’s rituals entirely unscathed.

But they keep up appearances. Belinda plays ringmaster on Christmas Eve, her face a frozen mask of cheer, as her relatives go through their time-honored routines. Neville’s accident-prone sister, Phyllis, has commandeered the kitchen, where she’s getting soused while turning a roast lamb to cinders. Her husband Bernard is preparing for his annual puppet extravaganza, an event so loathed by the children that, to avoid it, they’ve offered to forego Christmas altogether. Uncle Harvey is in the sitting room watching war movies on TV and boasting of the guns he’s gift-wrapped for the kids. Joining him are out-of-work Eddie and his pregnant wife Pattie, who are barely speaking to one another. The cocktails that might lubricate the festivities go unmade because a preoccupied Neville keeps popping out to his workshop to perfect one of his mechanical inventions. On his way, he sometimes bumps into Rachel, who is forever returning from the train station without her weekend guest, a best-selling novelist named Clive, on whom she’s pinned all her romantic hopes.

That’s just the first scene, but you get the general idea. Ayckbourn works in a tradition of rapidly escalating farce that is, forBritish audiences, as comfortingly familiar as it is funny. The situations aren’t subtle, and the jokes are the sort that benefit when everyone—sometimes even the characters—can see them coming. Ayckbourn’s chief contribution to the form has been to root it in reality with moments of genuine, often painful, character revelation. In Season’s Greetings, nearly everybody is uncomfortably self-aware. Puppetmeister Bernard, played at fever pitch by Nick Olcott, may be the evening’s most ridiculous figure when manipulating the characters in his marathon 16-scene epic The Three Little Pigs, but he also has moments of real anguish. A speech in which he acknowledges his utter failure not just as a puppeteer, but also as a doctor and husband, manages to be quite touching, though it’s sandwiched between moments of outright slapstick.

Round House’s production was still a little ragged around the edges on its last day of previews, but with a top-notch cast, it’s likely to get better as it plays. Jane Beard’s sequentially decisive Rachel—the character makes up her mind, states her mind, then retracts whatever she’s said and starts over—is already a certifiable hoot, as is Harry A. Winter’s shoot-from-the-hip war-movie connoisseur. Mary Ellen Nester’s firmly in-control Belinda is never so winning as when she’s transparently lovesick over Joao de Sousa’s empty-headed novelist. And Marty Lodge is well on his way to finding the note of purpose in Neville’s air of distraction that will explain the tension in his marriage.

Director Daniel DeRaey is most identified in Washington with far more eccentric and politicalcomedies than this one. A leading local interpreter of Canadian playwright George F. Walker—DeRaey staged his fabulously anarchic Love and Anger at Round House two seasons ago and played the philosophical bum in his subversive Criminals in Love staged by the company last spring—the director doesn’t seem quite as comfortable with Ayckbourn’s merely familial battles. In Season’s Greetings, he whips up an appropriate frenzy, but isn’t always able to motivate the characters in convincing ways. At times, they seem to be wandering around Elizabeth H. Jenkins’ homey setting pretty aimlessly, rather than being knocked off-course by events, and this undercuts the play’s darker impulses. The ties that bind this family never seem as seriously threatened as the script keeps implying they are.

“It’s all coming apart,” says a reveler at one point, “the whole fabric ripping apart.” At Round House, it’s just getting poked full of holes.

Reckless also begins on Christmas Eve, but takes a slightly different route to its bahs and humbugs. As the lights come up on MetroStage’s two-tier setting, Rachel (Francie Glick) is sitting at her upstairs bedroom window watching the snow fall. One of life’s most dedicated nurturers, she has planned the holiday dinner, hung stockings by the chimney, and tucked the kids into bed. Now, framed by the window, she’s radiant and at peace, thinking quietly about how perfect life can sometimes be.

But when she turns adoringly to her husband for confirmation, he starts sobbing. Seems he’s taken a contract out on her life, and is expecting her murderer to break into the house any minute. Though Rachel is in robe and slippers, he bundles her out the bedroom window and tells her to run. “Don’t look back,” he urges. The sound of breaking glass downstairs in the living room convinces her to obey.

Thus begins Rachel’s odyssey—a picaresque journey that for a variety of reasons will leave a trail of corpses through several Springfields (“there’s one in every state”), and involve the heroine with a series of therapists (“dream” to “primal scream”) on her way to self-sufficiency. Even at Reckless‘ premiere in 1983, playwright Craig Lucas’ conception of Rachel as a pre-feminist Alice in Candideland must have seemed a trifle dated. But the play’s sendup of stereotypes, from smarmy talk-show hosts to selfish good Samaritans, is often amusing.

Glick’s empathetic portrayal of the main character, who could easily become grating as she faces each new disappointment with a smile, is the evening’s strongest asset. Whether learning sign language so that she can communicate with a woman who’s only pretending to be deaf or unwittingly courting death threats from an embezzler at the first job she’s ever held, she’s unfailingly appealing. Lee Mikeska Gardner keeps a terrific supporting cast ricocheting around the set, but for many patrons, the evening’s chief attraction will be the way it sees the holiday period—a time of angst without a sugarplum in sight. Instead of trimming the tree, these folks have trimmed the treacle.