‘Inspecting Carol’

Peter Scolari and Dan Lauria star in this send-up of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at George Street Playhouse.

By: Stuart Duncan
   It’s astonishing that one of the funniest plays to hit the American stage was assembled by committee. But 15 years ago, Daniel Sullivan, who was artistic director of Seattle Rep, had the notion to create a holiday comedy by merging Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol with Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. Using the resident acting company both as prototypes and as co-authors, the troupe came up with Inspecting Carol and the Christmas season has never quite been the same since.
   George Street Playhouse’s artistic director, David Saint, had just joined Seattle Rep in 1990, and so was privy to that first production. He brought it to New Brunswick eight years ago in his first season at George Street and now has revived it, at least in great part because there was a real demand for its return.
   The script uses as its starting point a small, regional theater group (given the name Soap Box Playhouse) and we join them during the four-day rehearsal period assigned for the umpteenth annual staging of the Dickens masterpiece. It is not quite an ordinary year: the company’s Scrooge has been rehired only after considerable soul-searching (he had done an entire performance in Spanish the previous year, apparently searching for some "third world" meaning to the piece). Moreover, there is a new member of the troupe in a blatant nod to multi-ethnic behavior and he is having trouble learning his lines. Then there is Bob Cratchit’s bad back, threatened by the fact that Tiny Tim now weighs much more than normal hauling capacity.
   But a far deeper threat beckons. The new accountant has unearthed the fact that not only has the subscription rate lost about half what was planned, but the National Endowment for the Arts has cut the much-needed stipend it hands out annually. Not just trimmed it, you understand, cut it entirely. There remains only one glimmering hope — the NEA is sending an "inspector" from Washington, D.C., to make an evaluation before a final decision.
   And so when a hopelessly inept itinerant actor shows up asking for an audition, it is quite natural to assume that he may indeed be that "inspector." Certainly he gives no hint of proof that he is an actor, at least not when he spouts Shakespeare.
   As the laughs grow both in volume and frequency during the exposition in act one, we are merely being prepared for the havoc of act two. The more you know and love the Dickens novella, the louder you will dissolve in hysterics.
   Dan Lauria returns as Scrooge, perhaps a slight bit more overbearing than before. Peter Scolari plays the would-be actor, and steals any scene that isn’t firmly nailed down. Mary Catherine Wright plays the much-abused stage manager with such delicious deadpan delivery that you would hire her immediately for your own community group. Catherine Cox finds just the right level of angst as the beleaguered company director, Wally Dunn likewise as the new accountant. Randy Donaldson has great fun as the new "ethnic" actor who freezes at the sight of an audience. MacIntyre Dixon and Peggy Cosgrave have great fun as the married veteran actors (she’s from England; he’s from Cleveland). And Michael Mastro plays Cratchit with such style that he gives new insights into the character (as well as many guffaws).
   Oh yes, Christmas will never be quite the same, especially if you have to sit through the real A Christmas Carol.
Inspecting Carol continues at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through Dec. 31. Performances: Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2, 7 p.m.; Dec. 17, 22-23, 26, 28-29, 31, 2 p.m.; no 8 p.m. show Dec. 24; no shows Dec. 25, 27. Tickets cost $28-$58, $15 students (select shows). For information, call (732) 246-7717. On the Web: www.gsponline.org