TAMPA — It's encouraging whenever a Christmas play promises something besides cheeriness or sentimentality. There's nothing wrong with those qualities, of course, but they permeate virtually every piece of entertainment offered in the last two months of each year.
So a seasonal show called Christmas Stopping, about a family that's fed up with the holiday and plans to ignore it, bristles with potential. That it's written and directed by James Rayfield, an immensely talented artist who's been a linchpin of Tampa's theater scene for decades, makes the play even more intriguing.
Unfortunately, Christmas Stopping offers unpleasantness, even creepiness. There's not enough sarcasm to please a Christmas cynic, nor enough warmth to make the play palatable to a traditionalist, nor enough humor and drama for someone looking for entertainment.
Ultimately, the play doesn't even make sense.
The idea is that a Christmas-hating therapist has written a book about the sociological evils of the holidays. He has vowed that his family will avoid all suggestions of seasonal celebration. As the play opens, he rushes into his house, panicking and locking the door because he has just heard the first bells of the season.
He panics further when his wife informs him that their two children are somewhere outside, where they might be exposed to the sights and sounds of the season.
As the therapist expounds at excruciating length about his reasons for disdaining Christmas, the kids come home. The son is a community college slacker and the daughter is a 24-year-old compulsive shopper who still believes in Santa.
Individually, these are fairly repellent people. As a family, they're horrific.
It seems this is supposed to be a comedy — honestly, it's hard to tell — and there are some mild chuckles along the way. And the ending is a very clever twist on the cliched ending that Rayfield leads you to expect. (If you missed the fact that the therapist is a contemporary Ebenezer Scrooge, there's a dream sequence at the end that makes it explicit.)
The acting (Alvin Jenkins and Jessica Alexander as dad and mom, Lauren Allison and Chris Jackson as the kids) is probably as good as the script allows. The set by Scott Cooper, the costumes by Jennifer Cunningham an Mike Buck, and the sound design by Lynne Locher are all impressive.
It's far from enough, though. Christmas Stopping seems to be a 10-minute skit that was padded with endless repetition. As much as one might expect to, want to, and even try to love a skewed Christmas play, it's awfully hard to feel cheer for Christmas Stopping.