Jamie Warrow (center) is crowded by Joel Mitchell, Jon Ager and Leah Smith in Harry Kondoleon's "Christmas on Mars" The Ringwald Theatre. Photo: Colleen Scribner

The alienated have landed at The Ringwald

By Donald V. Calamia

Anyone walking into The Ringwald Theatre expecting "Christmas on Mars" to be a frothy, merry holiday comedy are going to be in for a big shock - albeit a very entertaining one. Why? Because unlike what the title suggests, "Christmas on Mars" isn't really about Santa, space travel, aliens or even the season itself. Rather, it's a quirky tale about "the lies and the compromises" we tell ourselves (and others) to make it through the day. Yet just like the much-maligned fruitcake that inevitably shows up this time of year, the odd mix of fruits and nuts on the stage of The Ringwald Theatre will likely be among the most surprising gifts you'll receive this holiday season!

Take Nissim, for example. A recently fired flight attendant who's madly in love with his longtime straight friend and roommate Bruno, Nissim is a whirligig of energy and emotions - a force to be reckoned with, who storms into the not-quite-yet-rented apartment of Bruno and his not-quite-yet fiance Audrey (who is also the not-quite-yet mother-of-his-child-to-be) and never leaves. Nothing Nissim tells Audrey about Bruno's past fazes her. So when his attempts to sabotage their relationship ultimately fail, the drama queen's utter hysteria builds and builds - until he faints dead away. (It's a recurring response, a not-very-surprised Bruno explains.)

That's not to say Bruno and Audrey are without faults, too. Bruno is a vain and not-very-successful model/actor who hasn't met a woman he won't sleep with. (Including his mother-in-law-to-be.) And a rather chilly Audrey harbors deep-seated resentment towards her mother, Ingrid, who supposedly beat her and abandoned her as a child.

And wouldn't you know it: Bruno has contacted dear old mom without the daughter's knowledge and asked for help in renting the new apartment. (Apparently, Ingrid is rather well off.) So she too shows up - and moves right in, hoping to make amends through her soon-to-be grandchild. As you can imagine, the now-crowded apartment and its seriously flawed occupants all add up to what is certainly a recipe for disaster.

Albeit a tasty one - for theatergoers, that is.

Classified as a comedy - or better yet, a dark comedy - playwright Harry Kondoleon's script is very funny indeed. His characters, however, are rather tragic, as each carries more baggage than the underbelly of a fully occupied 747. Yet with sparkly and insightful dialogue, Kondoleon offers a rather poignant tale of human nature and the often-tenuous ties that bind us together.

The danger, though, is to present the show with little more than stereotypes. The Ringwald knows better, however, and delivers yet another well-acted production that had the small, but fully engaged audience quite entertained on a recent Saturday night.

That's largely the result of an exceptional performance by Joel Mitchell as Nissim. Mitchell has long been one of the area's most amazing talents, and he proves it yet again with his thoughtful, sensitive but never totally-over-the-top portrayal of this larger-than-life man-child. There's a passionate heart beating within Mitchell's Nissim, and it shines brightly despite the histrionics. All told, it's a carefully crafted, respectful and very funny performance that creates one of the most memorable characters seen so far this season. (His act one meltdown is a classic!)

So where does that leave the rest of the cast? They too bring their best to the roles Kondoleon offers them - but none is given quite the same raw materials to work with.

Jon Ager as Bruno continues to grow and impress as an actor, while Jamie Warrow - often as an observer than a participant in this story - says more with Audrey's eyes and facial expressions than with words. And it's always a treat to see Leah Smith tackle a role - especially one such as Ingrid that allows her to explore a full range of emotions. (We don't see enough of her on stage these days!)

Direction by Warrow and her assistant Matthew Turner Shelton is slick and perfectly paced. And Warrow's Spartan set is given dimension by the cool view outside the back windows.

So if you're looking for a Christmas show this season in which the ho-ho-hos are coming from the audience rather than the characters on stage, a trip to Mars might be just the ticket you're looking for!

REVIEW:

'Christmas on Mars'

Who Wants Cake? at The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday-Monday through Dec. 13. $10-$20. 248-545-5545. http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com

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