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A CurtainUp Review
Christmas on Mars

by Les Gutman
As a baby I rolled my eyes behind my lids. I was intolerant of everything, especially of those larger creatures who hovered over my crib and playpen with their fake concern and shrill voices. As an adolescent I sat alone inventing characters for myself--anyone to play with in my misery, making the arabesque connections common only among the insane and gifted: I stunned and isolated my peers, divorced couples flew to my side for advice and comfort, time and again I--
---Harry Kondoleon's Nissim, just before fainting

It's been well over a decade, almost two in fact, since we were first introduced to the strange assortment of characters in Harry Kondoleon's Christmas on Mars. Since his death in 1994, we haven't seen a great deal of Kondoleon's work. When, last season, I saw the belated premiere of Saved or Destroyed (review linked below), the last play he wrote, I remarked how much it made me miss the "joyous messes" that Kondoleon created.

So, I was delighted to see this revival of one of his best plays. I've seen a countless number of plays since Christmas on Mars, but I've never forgotten this one or its most fascinating character, Nissim (Brent Popolizio). Kondoleon's hard-to-categorize, quirky plays are like no one else's: carefully crafted off-kilter dialogue mixed with lyricism that produces a poignant melancholy buffeted by head-shaking comedy. His characters speak their minds, but often clouded by what Nissim calls "the lies and the compromises". What Kondoleon uncovers, although we are hesitant to admit it, are the footprints of our humanity, and lack thereof.

Bruno (David Ayers) and his girlfriend, Audrey (Jen Nevergole), are looking at an apartment they want to rent together when Nissim unexpectedly waltzes in. Bruno, a self-absorbed model, has lived with Nissim, a gay flight attendant, for a decade; Nissim has always had a huge crush on Bruno, and takes not-at-all well to this perceived abandonment. Audrey works in a casting office through which, perhaps not coïncidentally, Bruno got his big break. Bruno has written a letter to Audrey's well-to-do mother, Ingrid (Traci Godfrey), asking her to come to the apartment as well, and hoping she'll co-sign the lease and front some of the money it will require. Audrey hasn't seen her mother since she was a child, and has no interest in having anything to do with her now. (Ingrid ran off with a man, leaving her with the child's aunts.) These are frighteningly lonely people, whose biggest problem is their unhealthy familiarity with the notion of love. But Audrey announces she is pregnant, and the prospect of a baby has an effect on all of them. Some find Kondoleon's failure to resolve all of this neatly to be frustrating; in reality, it's convincing.

Nissim is a priceless creature: deluded, neurotic, child-like and filled with chaotic vitriol, yet strangely appealing. In the right hands, he's a sight to behold and, happily, Brent Popolizio inhabits him magnificently. Under Jon Schumacher's always well-considered direction, his performance is often a machinegun-paced extravaganza of verbal calisthenics blended with moments of startling innocence. In his outrageousness, Popolizio never loses connection with Nissim's underlying heartache. If Kondoleon is a playwright who is part poet, part outcast and part dreamer, Nissim is his voice.

None of the play's other characters present performance opportunities that can compete with Nissim, but both Ayers and Nevergole, neither of whom is particularly well cast, come up a bit short in exploiting what they have to work with. Both fail to render their roles in three dimensions; he is somewhat too likable; she, not likable enough (even for someone described by her mother as "a witch on an iceberg"). Traci Godfrey's Ingrid is fine.

The space at Manhattan Theatre Source is well-suited to this intimate production, and the show demands little in the way of tampering. (The first act is played in an empty room; by the second act, only a baby crib has been added.) Despite my quibbling, it's an admirable production.

Saved or Destroyed

Christmas on Mars
by Harry Kondoleon
Directed by Jon Schumacher
with David Ayers, Brent Popolizio, Jen Nevergole and Traci Godfrey
Costume Design: Matthew Schwörer
Lighting Design: Dana Sterling
Running Time: 2 hours including 1 intermission
A production of Singularity
Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 MacDougal Street (@8 St)
Telephone (212) 539 - 7553
Opening October 17, 2001, closing November 3, 2001
WED - SAT @8; $12
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 10/24/01 performance

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