A Very Die Hard Christmas
By Jenny Lower
Through December 19
Josh Carson’s lovingly crafted theatrical tribute to the action franchise starring Bruce Willis opens in darkness, until an offstage cappella chorus sounds the familiar crescendo and theme music that herald a 20th Century Fox movie.
The cheeky intro grants the ridiculousness of what follows: squeezing one of Hollywood’s highest-octane, special effects-laden spectacles into a 99-seat theater on a shoestring budget.
Directed by Gregory Crafts, the staging at Theatre Unleashed is self-consciously homemade, with a drywall set that evokes the unfinished upper floors of the Nakatomi Plaza (actually the Fox Plaza in Century City). Instead of full-bore weaponry, we have toy guns and party poppers and explosions delivered with handfuls of confetti. Replacing the wry pasty Willis as rogue cop John McClane is Wade Wilson who, upon noting the surprise of his (also racially swapped) limo driver Argyle (Adam Meredith), deadpans, “You never heard of Black Irish?”
Although uneven, this West Coast premiere offers a pleasant festive alternative to typical holiday fare while still remaining entrenched in the genre. There are Christmas tunes aplenty — their lyrics redubbed — along with a multitude of riffs (some semi-obscure) on seasonal movies and cult classics, as well as puppets large and small, and audience participation. Not all moments come off perfectly: A rendition of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” falls flat, and there are some overly long gags involving actors rapidly switching roles. Bradley Upton’s low-key portrayal of the high-strung, silky-haired terrorist (and real-life former ballet dancer) Karl feels like a missed opportunity.
But the playwright and the actors have a good handle on the conventions of the genre, and the cast’s high spirits make up for any shortcomings in production values. Wilson often acts as the straight man, serving up Willis’ tough-guy smirk and stylish banter, while David Foy Bauer drives some of the show’s best moments as the fastidious West German mastermind Hans Gruber (including a coy duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Wilson).
Liesl Jackson, though lukewarm as McClane’s separated wife Holly Gennaro, has a sly cameo as The Grinch’s Cindy Lou Who.
Sean Fitzgerald hits smarmy low points as the coked-out Ellis, while Meredith, tripling as the softhearted terrorist Douche and an opportunistic reporter, is a comic standout. Margaret Glaccum is practically perfect playing both Holly’s heavily pregnant assistant and a put-upon emergency dispatcher.
Theatre Unleashed at The Belfry Stage, Upstairs @ The Crown; 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood; Thurs-Sat. 8 p.m.; special show Mon., Dec. 7; through Dec. 19. (818) 849-4039; www.theatreunleashed.org; Running time: two hours with an intermission.