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Greg D. Barnett, Patrick Burke, Marcia Rodd, Belinda Howell and Fox Carney in Phil Olson's A Nice Family Christmas at the Lonny Chapman Theatre. (Photo by Doug Engalla)
Greg D. Barnett, Patrick Burke, Marcia Rodd, Belinda Howell and Fox Carney in Phil Olson’s A Nice Family Christmas at the Lonny Chapman Theatre. (Photo by Doug Engalla)

A Nice Family Christmas

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
The Lonny Chapman Theatre
Through December 18

Playwright Phil Olson seems to have been of two minds about what sort of play he wanted to write — a snarky comedy about a bickering dysfunctional family, or a sweet uplifting holiday tale. So he tried for both.

Widowed Mom (Belinda Howell) has sold the family house and moved into a condo in Minneapolis. Now, for the first time since Dad died, she’s expecting all the kids home for Christmas. One by one, they arrive, each trailing a truckload of emotional baggage.

Brother Carl (Greg D. Barnett) has always been belittled and unfavorably compared to his brother Michael (Patrick Burke), a doctor, and now he’s just been ditched by his longtime girlfriend for refusing to even discuss commitment. Michael’s wife Jill (Rebekah Dunn) has left him, partially because he’s more interested in his commemorative plate collection than he is in her. Unbeknownst to the others, Michael’s been drinking heavily and has twice been to rehab. Later, Jill turns up, suffering from a hormonal imbalance that causes her to burst into tears at the drop of a hat.

Sister Stacey (Truett Jean Butler), the most inconspicuous and ignored member of the clan, surprised everybody by coming out as a lesbian. She’s perhaps luckier than her siblings in that she has a lover and a baby. But her lover is still deeply closeted and refuses to come out even to her own family. Uncle Bob (Fox Carney) is an elderly lecher who’s carrying an unwelcome torch for Mom, but he’s estranged from his son because of his long record as an absentee father.

Presiding over all this is salty, bossy Grandma (Marcia Rodd), who, despite her years, still considers herself a sexpot, and demonstrates her twerking skills to prove it. She constantly insists that things were better in her day, and she delights in belittling her grandchildren, calling the manhood of the men into question, and condemning Stacey for taking a Catholic female lover.

As the family members trade barbs and jockey for position, Mom proves to be an inveterate conflict avoider. Whenever things start to get sticky, she serves hors d’oeuvres and tries to change the subject.  But she proves as tough an infighter as any of them; when it’s revealed that she’s been diagnosed with cancer, she resorts to emotional blackmail, demanding that each member of her clan act out an embarrassing reconciliation ritual with his or her significant other.

At this point the action veers off, lurching into the territory of the sentimental Hallmark Christmas movie. Even bitchy Grandma abandons her bitchery to reveal a heart of gold, and she’s also a bit of a deus ex machina, guaranteeing prosperity to each family member (except maybe Uncle Bob).

Olson is a clever writer, and much of his play is funny in an obvious sitcom-ish way. Director Doug Engalla has given it a slick and lively production, with an able ensemble that makes the most of the material. Top honors go to Rodd as the relentlessly bad-mouthing Granny.


The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, Noho. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; (818) 763-5990. Running time: One hour and 45 minutes with one 15- minute intermission.