Berkeley Daily Planet, July 21, 1999
John Angell Grant

"Berkeley's creative, energetic and risk-taking Shotgun Players opened a strong production Saturday of Henry Kondoleon's bizarre, dysfunctional family comedy, Christmas on Mars.

After doing several successful sellout shows at South Berkeley Community Congregational Church, Shotgun became a victim of its own success in an older space that ultimately couldn't handle the heavy theatre traffic. So, for this show, Shotgun is back performing at La Val's Subterranean on the North Side, where they staged much of their earlier work.

Harry Kondoleon was a playwright out of the Yale Drama School playwrighting program who wrote prolifically in the 1980s. He died of AIDS in 1992 - a big loss for American theatre.

His Christmas on Mars is a hilarious and unusual piece: a family bisexual love story, sort of a cross between Christopher Durang and Noel Coward.

Shotgun stages productions for thinking people who enjoy a challenging evening at the theatre, and this production is no exception.

In the play, Bruno and Audrey, a couple of young, aspiring show-biz types, move into a new apartment to set up home in expectation of their first baby. Bruno and Audrey come with a lot of baggage, however. This includes Bruno's male ex-lover Nissim, and Audrey's mother Ingrid, whom Audrey hates and hasn't seen for years, but who is willing to pay the rent. These four people don't get along very well, and don't always like each other very much. They make one very dysfunctional, and very hilarious, nuclear family.

To playwright Kondoleon's credit, the characters he has created are not cartoons, and that's what makes the play work.

Kondoleon sets up extreme and unusual situations, but then he makes the characters deal with them, ultimately, as real people, so it is possible to empathize with all of them.

Christmas on Mars is not a perfect play. Kondoleon does better in its first half introducing his human menagerie and setting up their problems than he does in the second half resolving the huge mess he has created. The second half of the play runs out of story gas. It becomes expository and episodic, and drifts. Where Bruno is the central character for most of the play, near the end at times the central character seems to be Nissim. It's as though Kondoleon wasn't quite sure where to take this strange situation once he's set it up. Christmas on Mars doesn't so much resolve itself, as stop.

But it is a thinking person's play - intelligent and witty at the same time. Reid Davis has directed the play very well. The acting is terrific.

Patrick Dooley is appropriately charming and sleazy as con man and model/actor Bruno.

A ndrew Hurteau is hilarious as nervous and hysterical, but struggling and heart-felt, Nissim. A gay man who once hypnotized himself to convince himself he was bisexual, and then married a female junkie, Nissim is the most honest of the four in his efforts to work through his crazy issues. But he has his problems. He smokes imaginary cigarettes, because they're not as bad for him as real cigarettes.

Marin Van Young is a complex and interesting Audrey, both sweet and nasty.

Beth Donohue is alternately protective and struggling as Audrey's mother Ingrid, trying to make amends for Audrey's lousy childhood.

Michael Frassinelli's striking pink set with its cockeyed windows creates an appropriately crazy environment for this story.

At La Val's you deal with a little bit of noise from time to time from the restaurant upstairs, but it's all part of the experience.

This is real theatre, folks. This is what it's all about. Shotgun is one of the most creative and energetic theatre companies in the Bay Area, and Berkeley is fortunate to have them.

Hills Newspapers , July 22, 1999
Marc Albert

From the moment the actors appear, you know you're in for one heck of a ride.

...The Shotgun Players' flawless production of Harry Kondoleon's hilarious stage play Christmas on Mars pounds the modern relationship into dirt. Biting satire and adult themes fill a powerful script with both sidesplitting laughs and profundity that seldom reaches the mainstream stage.

Patrick Dooley's vacuous Bruno is a twenty-something model expecting his ship to arrive at any moment. What arrives instead is news that his luscious girlfriend Audrey, played by Marin Van Young, is pregnant. Soon Audrey's mother Ingrid, who abandoned her in early childhood, arrives. Audrey, who hasn't spoken to her mother in years, is far from thrilled. Then, in walks Nissim, Bruno's bisexual former college roommate and friend who just quit his airline steward job.

The four have a lot to work out, and it's not long before old secrets are made public. Audrey announces she chose Bruno 'like a salmon' as a good-looking provider, and that 'He doesn't even love himself unless the light is just right and he's passing by a mirror!'

All the performers are outstanding, but Andrew Hurteau's Nissim steals the show.

'The stewards work twice as hard as the stweardesses,' he says of his old job, 'because they wanted to be stewardesses to begin with.' 'Have you been looking at the newspaper again?' he asks Ingrid. 'I told you not to look at them, it's the same news over and over again.'

The plot twists unfold fast and furiously. It's impossible to tell when or where it will all end and how far the four characters will go to insult, attack and berate each other. But as Dooley, the troupe's artistic director, explained, 'as messed up as the characters are, they are all trying to be loved, but they are all coming from this distorted space.' Dooley said the play has been described as 'Barefoot in the Park on acid.'

Where most fairy tales end, with the marriage and the cliché 'happily ever after,' the Shotgun Players turn that into just the beginning, but with all the oh so human traits that we never learned about in fairy tales.

...It's a true thrill to have modern adult drama that is introspective without being artistically aloof. Best of all it's affordable - at prices even an artist can afford.

Bay Area Reporter, July 22, 1999
Richard Dodds

The claustrophobic basement of a Berkeley pizza parlor provides the suitable venue for Christmas on Mars, a play that takes place, not on another planet, but within the tortured psyches of its four characters. The Shotgun Players, while its home space is under renovation, has returned to La Val's Subterranean to stage Harry Kondoleon's intriguing, if uneven, quirky comedy.

Like Christopher Durang, a fellow product of the Yale School of Drama, Kondoleon employs an absurdist style to examine the mutual torture that family often inflicts in a convoluted world. Both Durang and Kondoleon were beginning to make their marks in the early '80s, when Christmas on Mars opened in New York and Kondoleon won an Obie Award for most promising playwright. A decade later, after writing 17 plays and two novels, Kondoleon would be dead of AIDS at age 39.

But unlike Durang, who seldom strays from a jokey tone, Kondoleon can grow pensive as the mysteries of an uncaring universe are mulled. And unlike Durang, he can grow specifically obvious. 'I'm a tragic character,' says a desperately unhappy gay flight attendant, 'and the tragedy of it is that I have to go on living.' Much more nimbly evocative is another line delivered by the same character: 'All my shoes are a half-size too small and filled with pain.'

The flight attendant is a member of a dysfunctional extended family that includes a preening male model on whom he has an obsessive crush, the model's pregnant girlfriend who is rabidly embittered against the mother who abandoned her as a child, and that self-absorbed mother who arrives looking for forgiveness and winds up in bed with her daughter's boyfriend.

Director Reid Davis supplies the confident touch that this material requires. The tone, set somewhere between reality and the outer limits, is sustained with only a few missteps. One of those is a powerful final image involving a baby's bassinet that is partly undermined by unwisely using the same prop in an earlier scene.

While neither Patrick Dooley's look nor his wardrobe suggest a slick fashion model, he is a winsome performer who is often amusing as he struggles to smooth out the endless wrinkles of life. Marin Van Young is bracingly effective as his increasingly severe girlfriend, and Beth Donohue, though perhaps too young for the role, brings a vivid comic desperation to the role of the mother. As the flight attendant, Andrew Hurteau effectively connects with his more introspective moments.

Michael Frassinelli's empty-apartment set with its skewed windows suggests a world at a remove from our own. But not too far removed for these skewed characters to resonate for any other occupants of a lonely planet., July 30, 1999

Jean Schiffman

"Obie Award-winning New York playwright Harry Kondoleon wrote this black comedy about a group of borderline nuts in Manhattan who are looking for love, or at least a reason for staying alive, in the early '80s; he died of AIDS in 1992. I wish we could see what Kondoleon would have written today. As it is, Christmas on Mars is messy, full of too many unmotivated confessional-style monologues that go nowhere, delivered by basically unpleasant (though still sympathetic) characters, and has a contrived, partly happy ending. Nevertheless, as staged by Shotgun Players in the tiny basement below La Val's Pizzeria in Berkeley, it's a witty and worthwhile evening of theatre.

Nissim, a flamboyant, lonely, and terminally weird gay man, has been in love with his roommate, the self-absorbed actor Bruno, forever. When Bruno decides to marry his girlfriend, tough-nut casting director Audrey, Nissim - prone to hysteria and fainting fits - promptly freaks. To complicate matters, Bruno has written secretly to Audrey's mother - whom Audrey claims once stabbed her in the chest with a fork and threatened to pour boiling water on her - asking for a loan so the engaged couple can rent a new apartment. When Mom turns up, seeking to make amends with her estranged daughter, it's Audrey's turn to freak. Eventually Mom, adrift and on the rebound from a lifetime of bad relationships, freaks too. When it's revealed that Audrey's pregnant, each character sees his or her own salvation in the unborn child.

Under Reid Davis' direction, Kondoleon's comedy gets a crisp workout, but at times Davis' touch is too heavy-handed. For example, Andrew Hurteau as Nissim expends more energy than necessary making his character funny; the witty, self-deprecating lines really do the work for him. ('To overcome shyness I become grotesquely friendly,' explains Nissim matter-of-factly; he dates the tragedy of his life back to the time as a child when he found a question mark next to his name on a classmate's party-invitee list.) But Hurteau is good enough that Nissim's despair does, indeed, show through, although fitfully.

The straight man role of the too-charming-for-his-own-good Bruno seems to fit Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley like a glove; and Marin Van Young, a dead ringer for Jennifer Jason Leigh, finds nuance and variety in the role of the coolly enraged Audrey. Only Beth Donohue, who is usually so good, seems stiff and unnatural as the mother, a role that she's too young for, in any case. Still, she has a dynamic presence that's entirely watchable. The ensemble work here is a delight."

SF Bay Guardian, July 31, 1999
Brad Rosenstein

'Christmas' in August

...Harry Kondoleon's Christmas on Mars is a textbook example of what millennial domestic comedy has become: dark, sharp, and twisted. The Shotgun Players return to their old stomping ground at La Val's Subterranean with this demented fable, an inverted Christmas pageant from hell.

Aspiring supermodel Bruno (Patrick Dooley) and his girlfriend, Audrey (Marin Van Young), are apartment shopping in the city -- a Faustian enterprise perfectly conveyed by Michael Frassinelli's purgatorial, Pepto-Bismol-colored set. The opportunistic Bruno uses this occasion to reunite Audrey with her estranged mother, Ingrid (Beth Donohue), just as Audrey reveals she is pregnant. Bruno has barely proposed to Audrey when his roommate Nissim (Andrew Hurteau) shows up, claiming he and Bruno are longtime lovers. When they hear of the impending child, both Ingrid and Nissim insist on central roles in the couple's household.

The comic insanity is fast and furious, with every character revealing gaping psychic wounds and moral blind spots at warp speed. Particularly in Nissim's operatic rants, Kondoleon's brilliant language sings, even if the characters' collective weltschmerz gets ladled on a bit thickly in act two. Dooley is perfect as the vain, amoral Bruno, Van Young does some of her strongest work to date as the icy Audrey, and Donohue is electric as always, despite an unevenly written part. Hurteau whirls like a tornado in his juicy role, but he never quite lands on Nissim's flaming queerness or his touching need for faith and family.

Kondoleon was a deft, lyrical, and very funny playwright whose career ended far too soon with his early death from AIDS-related illness. Although clearly a peer to Christopher Durang and Nicky Silver, Kondoleon was nevertheless an original voice whose development would have been fascinating to see. While the production falls a bit short of the play's crackling potential, director Reid Davis and his cast still serve up a bleakly hilarious evening.

SF Weekly, August 11, 1999
Michael Scott Moore

Martian Holiday

Harry Kondoleon wrote 17 plays and two novels before dying of AIDS in 1994, at the age of 39, and his writing never lost a sense of being obsessive, gay, and young: Sex goes scrambling through all his work like an uncontrollable dog.

Christmas on Mars opens with a straight couple named Audrey and Bruno admiring a small Manhattan apartment -- they seem almost too straight, and you wonder why they're acting so normal -- then lists dangerously close to catastrophe when Bruno's gay roommate,

Nissim, comes in. He's a trembling, wild-haired, acne-spotted airline steward, freshly fired from his job, who still has on his brass-button uniform and pulls around a wheeled carry-on. He's pissed at Bruno for leaving him alone, and offers proof to Audrey that her boyfriend (and father of her fetal child) is gay. Audrey doesn't care. Nissim explodes into a rant about "the beauty of the soul" and then collapses, midsentence, on the floor. Christmas on Mars moves forward just like that -- in jerks, using rapid-fire surprises to build steam. Its marvelous manic energy is driven in this show by the turbine performance of Andrew Hurteau as Nissim, who has a bitingly fey manner and a wide-eyed intensity that manages to seem both crazy and sympathetic. In spite of his terrible skin he wants to be a model, like Bruno. "Why don't you look at yourself realistically?" Bruno says. Nissim: "Why don't you die?" His name is Hebrew for "miracles" -- "and my parents weren't even Jewish" -- but he's obviously the playwright's stand-in, the luckless gay schlimazel who stalks through most of Kondoleon's writing, especially since no one else in the play feels half as energetic or alive.

One near-exception is Audrey's mom, Ingrid. Bruno has called Ingrid for financial help, and she's on her way to see the place. Audrey hates her mom, though, and getting money from her will be a delicate task, not just because Bruno's insane ex-roommate has just revealed himself as an ex-lover and passed out on the carpet, but also because Audrey loses her balance whenever they bring up Ingrid's name. (She calls her mom by her first name.) But Ingrid seems to be a stable, mature woman, at first, and Beth Donohue plays her with careful shading -- delicate and subtly felt. She's gentler than Nissim, but comes off as detailed and full.

The newlyweds don't. Audrey appears to be a cautious, inwardly frantic young woman until her mom shows up; then she turns into a banshee. Marin Van Young strains to make Audrey credible, but her rancor toward Ingrid seems exaggerated and fake. Van Young improves in Act 2, as a heavy overdue mother, brimming with an emotionality, a silent hatred for Bruno, and a ferocious craving for mixed nuts that all give the actress something to work with. Patrick Dooley plays Bruno as a smirking and eerily sentimental straight guy -- hugging Audrey, giving sappy speeches about their child -- but he doesn't do it with enough distance, and the first part of his performance feels not just straight but actually stiff.

Dooley improves later, when Bruno explodes at Nissim: For most of the play, Nissim has been teasing and torturing Bruno by revealing dirty secrets and making hilarious demands. Bruno at last bites back, and mockingly tries to rape Nissim in the unborn baby's crib. Dooley pulls off this scene with a smooth balance of outrage and control.

I like Christmas on Mars for the way it mixes caricature and real life; Kondoleon belonged to the vast modern experiment of trying to find a middle path between those two extremes. Some older writers found one (Shaw, Beckett, Grass), but there seems to be plenty of room in contemporary writing for exploration, since no young writer I've read or watched has managed the same effects. Wild satire doesn't need to sacrifice warmth, humanity, or seriousness any more than a serious purpose needs to sacrifice humor; but Kondoleon falls apart on the humanity side, just like Joe Orton. Neither playwright can get out of his outrageous situations with anything besides a junk ending. Donohue has turned Ingrid into a full character, and with more attention to detail Hurteau might have made Nissim complex -- his performance falls into a stiff-and-edgy rut -- but I'm not sure what anyone could do with Audrey and Bruno. They're written like Tom Tomorrow cartoons, with a wink at the audience ("We all know what normal people are like"), and the play's finale has to rely on stock happy-end techniques.

But Reid Davis' direction keeps the surprises coming at a comfortable clip, and Michael Frassinelli's set helps out with its hot-pink walls and crooked window frames. Mars is a much more effective showcase for an underproduced playwright than the Shotgun Players' last newish-playwright effort, Benjie Aerenson's Possum Play, simply because the cast seems to be having a much better time. Kondoleon's tragedy was that he died before he matured, and before breaking into national fame, leaving behind a large body of work that gets far too little attention. Why isn't he played more often in the Bay Area? His New York attitude -- gay sans self-pity, or maybe gay with a cannon aimed at self-pity -- works as a salutary slap in the face.