Daily Planet, July 21, 1999
John Angell Grant
creative, energetic and risk-taking Shotgun Players opened a strong production
Saturday of Henry Kondoleon's bizarre, dysfunctional family comedy, Christmas
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
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
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
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.
Newspapers , July 22, 1999
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
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 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
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
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.
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,
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
'Christmas' in August
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.