“CHRISTMAS 2.0”: Passage Theater presented an online reading of “Christmas 2.0”. Written by Donna Hoke (above) and directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, the romantic comedy explores how social media can compromise interpersonal relationships. Online contact with a former classmate endangers the protagonist’s current relationship with her husband. (Photo by kc kratt)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Tit’s an era defined by Apple, ”observes Angela, the protagonist of Christmas 2.0. Angela’s mother, in a review of restaurant patrons she sees engrossed in their phones throughout their meals, remarks: “What is more fascinating than the person in front of you? ?
This conversation could indicate a timely partnership between technology and live theater. Under normal circumstances, the allure of electronics and social media would seem to hinder theaters ‘ability to attract audiences’ attention to a live performance, where they would (presumably) be mesmerized by the person in front of them – on stage. However, faced with the fact that performance halls have been closed due to the pandemic, an increasing number of theater companies are presenting shows online.
Passage Theater presented a reading of Christmas 2.0. One example of a play well suited for online performance is playwright Donna Hoke’s tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy, which examines how social media and over-reliance on technology can compromise interpersonal relationships. (The New Play Exchange website states that the play was presented in a studio at the 2015 Hormel Festival of New Works at the Phoenix Theater and won third place in the Pickering Prize for Playwriting Excellence.)
Victoria Davidjohn reads the stage directions, which establishes the play’s first setting as “Jeff and Angela’s middle-class living room.” Jeff is busy on his phone; Angela is on her computer. Angela (who Autumn Hurlbert infuses with down-to-earth and gentle seriousness) turns away from her screen to examine the couple’s Christmas tree, which she fears is twisted.
Each actor receives the same backgrounds, which serve as the backdrop for the play. The sets are the living room (in which a flat-screen TV and the Christmas tree are visible), a department store and a restaurant. An image of the Christmas tree, which appears to be fairly well adorned with ornaments, is used throughout the performance. This seems to contradict the dialogue in which Angela complains that she and Jeff didn’t spend enough time decorating for the holidays, although the incongruity is harmless.
Angela is frustrated that Jeff (played by Ahmad Maksoud, with just the right mix of benevolent sincerity and deadpan) is immersed in fantasy football. This obsession monopolizes his attention at his expense. It’s especially frustrating for Angela, a housewife, because Jeff’s (unspecified) job keeps him away from extended business trips.
The couple’s (unseen) daughter, Melanie, is in her freshman year at college and will soon be home for winter break. Angela is frustrated by the lack of Christmas spirit in the house, and hopes to restore it in time for Mélanie’s visit.
Receiving a phone call from Angela, Mélanie wonders if there is an emergency, because “nobody just calls spontaneously”. Still typing on his phone, Jeff retorts, “That’s stupid. Children cannot communicate.
Although they are married, Jeff never bought Angela a ring. (He offered “spontaneously” on Christmas Eve, promising to buy a ring “later.”) It does little to help the general mood that Angela’s cat, Sinbad, frequently leaves a mess on the floor. – with which Jeff has little patience. (His threat to evict Sinbad – whose behavior often sparks phone conversations in which Jeff would rather hear from Angela – is quickly rebuffed.)
On a trip to the department store, Angela meets her old high school classmate, Kelly (who is imbued with a cheerfulness expertly exaggerated by Lipica Shah). The two strike up a conversation, but like Jeff, Kelly only half-listens, as she writes messages for her 3,000 Facebook friends. and answers a phone call. Kelly knowingly jokes that the only reason she wouldn’t answer her phone is if she was dead.
Kelly overhears the part of the conversation where Angela complains that there are some plumbing issues, which Jeff has made worse in his attempts to fix them. All the taps are reversed and the shower “has been running for months.” Kelly tries to help by recommending a plumber (which she found on Facebook, of course).
Unfortunately, the plumber is Billy, who Angela dated before college. Angela admits that having Billy in her house would “certainly be embarrassing.” Billy’s marital status is clearly unclear. Angela begins to talk to Kelly about the tensions in her marriage, but a salesperson is ready to help Kelly.
June Ballinger is the former artistic director of Passage. She is also a seasoned actress whose credits include Broadway and television. Here, she makes an entertaining appearance as May, Angela’s mother. Mai is ironic, breezy, and – somewhat stereotypically – slightly bossy and intrusive. While Jeff and Kelly are excessively immersed in their phones, the old-fashioned May is on the other extreme; she is puzzled when Angela plays music through an iPod rather than a radio.
Widow May assures Angela that she is not alone, as she has “a handyman”. May suggests that Jeff, who plans to be out of town on business, would appreciate Angela fixing the faulty plumbing issue by calling for repairs. This advice motivates Angela to contact Billy (portrayed with jovial bombast by Pete Pryor). They exchange benign jokes, and Billy’s slightly rude sense of humor distracts Angela’s mind from its current frustrations. Billy completes the repairs and the two plan to meet for “tea.”
Billy has two children, but when Angela asks him if he’s married, he lifts a ringless hand and responds cautiously, “not at the moment.” Angela raises her hand also unadorned. This is an example of the type of moment that is visually enhanced by an online performance, in which the audience can see things up close.
Eventually, the two plot points of the play – Kelly’s addiction to social media and Angela’s eventual affair with Billy – meet at an explosive intersection. Although invisible, the cat helps to put things right, through its problematic behavior.
There is no doubt that Angela is the protagonist. She is the only character on “stage” throughout the show. For the majority of scenes, the other characters take turns interacting with her, one at a time. It’s only late in the play, in a pair of scenes in which Hoke builds his disparate plot threads into a climax, that we see more than two characters together.
This crescendo – increasing the number of characters in a scene, as the simmering tension overflows – gives the play a clear form. In addition to getting distinctive performances from her talented cast, director Michelle Tattenbaum carefully paces the sequence of scenes (aided by stage management from Melody Wong), so that audiences are lulled into a steady beat that will be bowled over by.
As for reading Passage de Welcome to Matteson! last month, Christmas 2.0 was treated as a theatrical event. Purchasing a ticket allowed the public to watch a livestream via Zoom on December 12, or the recording on YouTube until December 15.
WWe can all use smarter faces, ”remarks Angela dryly but correctly, referring to their preponderance in electronic communications. As a successful play as a shrewd satire on the cultural weaknesses of our digital age, as well as a kind romantic comedy with a holiday setting, Christmas 2.0 is easy to “like”.
For more information on upcoming Passage Theater events, visit passagetheatre.org.