By John Quinn
Joe Hingleberg reacts to an Annie Lenox CD in “White Elephant,” now playing Thursday nights at Go Comedy! Photo: Bryan Lark
It’s coming up on 60 years since Perry Como first sang “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” Joe Hingleberg and Travis Pelto’s new comedy “White Elephant” is less sentimental and therefore more realistic than that. The show, playing late night Thursdays at Go Comedy! in Ferndale, suggests that holidays at home can be a little bit of Hades.
Stephen Drummond (Pelto) is not at his home for Christmas. He’s making the dreaded “meet the family” visit with his girlfriend, Janelle. They take separate planes; he arrives, she’s delayed. That leaves Stephen at the mercy of Janelle’s father, Norm (Mike McGettigan), and uncle, Dusty (Garrett Fuller), who seem to demonstrate that oafishness is genetic. Primed with alcohol, they’re ready to harass this intruder on a family holiday. Nor are Janelle’s sensible stepmother, Sharon (Melissa Beckwith), and hyperactive little brother, Sean (Hingleberg), immune from the hazing.
So Stephen is on his own as he learns the Turner family holiday traditions, which include high octane drinking games and White Elephant – wrapping unwanted items for a sort of grab-bag gifting. But “In vino veritas,” and, and as tongues are loosened, the holiday turns to hilarity.
The situation and characters of “White Elephant” are not unfamiliar, but how they’re used is fresh and funny. Hingleberg and Pelto are the creators of “Wirelessless,” last season’s Wilde Award winner for Best Original One-Act Comedy. That show’s director, Bryan Lark, returns to deliver a crisp, disciplined production that closely observes the natural comic build in the material for maximum enjoyment onstage. As if he didn’t have enough in his hands, Lark is also responsible for set, sound and costume designs. Director and playwrights have established an artistic relationship that really works.
The performances have the usual high polish of Go Comedy! ensembles, but there are always some eye-catchers. In Hingleberg’s case the “eye-catching” is literal. As 10-year-old Sean, he’s clad in a fire-engine red, NASCAR logoed flannel onesie, complete with feet. The character is both naive and wise beyond his years, bouncing around the stage chugging Red Bull. Writing a juicy role for himself won’t get the playwright on Santa’s “naughty” list.
It’s hard to take one’s eyes off Melissa Beckwith, who takes another beautifully crafted character to its artistic limits. Her face is as expressive as her voice; stepmother Sharon’s emotions are as easy to read as print on a page.
Perhaps this review makes “White Elephant” sound like another satirical slam of “family” values. It’s not. Ultimately truth and trust are redeeming characteristics in even the most cynical society, and this little gem just exudes Christmas cheer. I wouldn’t mind if this became something of a holiday classic. God bless us, everyone!
Go Comedy! Improv Theater, 261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale. 10 p.m. Every Thursday through Dec. 27. 1 hour, 5 minutes. $10. 248-327-0575. http://www.gocomedy.net