On Sunday night at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, the most magical moment in Comedy Suitcase’s The Harty Boys Save Christmas had nothing to do with presents or snow or mistletoe: it was when a young child laughed out loud, with a contagious giggle, at a punch line involving Ayn Rand. I can tell you how Santa gets down those chimneys, but I can’t tell you quite how Joshua English Scrimshaw and Levi Weinhagen pulled their magical feat off.
The Harty Boys Save Christmas is the second outing by the intrepid parodies of Edward Stratemeyer’s most famous duo; their debut was in The Harty Boys and the Case of the Missing Platypus, which was a big hit in the 2009 Fringe Festival and was revived earlier this year at the BLB. I missed that production in both its incarnations, but I heard good things about it and made sure I didn’t miss this, the Harty Boys’ sophomore sleuthing.
|the harty boys save christmas, presented through december 19 at the bryant-lake bowl. for tickets ($15/$12 adults, $6 kids) and information, see bryantlakebowl.com.|
The Harty Boys shows are advertised as family-friendly, and indeed, Scrimshaw and Weinhagen play to kids with broad gags and physical comedy under the fleet direction of Shanan Custer. Whereas you might catch one or two knowing adult references in a Children’s Theatre show, though (in A Christmas Story, the Old Man receives a symbolic blue [bowling] ball from his wife), and several in an episode of Sesame Street, cowriters Scrimshaw and Weinhagen, who also star as the eponymous Harty Boys, spew them out in a constant blizzard. And by “adult references,” I don’t mean ribald jokes—there are only a few of those. I mean references to philosophy, literature, and social theory. The ideal audience for this production would be a six-year-old with a Ph.D.
The plot has Fred (Scrimshaw) and Jack (Weinhagen) Harty trying to save Christmas from an aggrieved woman known only as That Crazy Santa Lady (Karen Wiese-Thompson) and her uptight German—excuse me, Austrian—henchman (Matt Rein). For help, they have their father Philmore (Ari Hoptman), their mother Lana (Leslie Ball), and their best friend Becca (Sulia Altenberg). As they save (or fail to save) a series of Twin Cities landmarks including Southdale, the Minneapolis Macy’s, and the Guthrie (though Joe Dowling has a sense of humor, I doubt he’d appreciate the references to “that crazy leprechaun who runs the place”), they come closer to understanding the true motivation of That Crazy Santa Lady. Do they save Christmas? Well, the show ain’t called The Harty Boys Save Christmas for nothin’.
The things this show does well, it does very well. Scrimshaw and Weinhagen are brave physical comedians, and they have a nice way with intentionally clumsy moments like late cues and stuck doors. The Harty Boys Save Christmas is worth seeing for its climax alone, an extended slow-motion battle with a missile from a rocket launcher that does for a tiny budget and a stage in the back of a bowling alley what Avatar did for CGI animation. Only James Cameron would have tried to make a $500 million 3D movie about sexy blue Ewoks, and only a Scrimshaw would try to stage an epic action sequence at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater.
That said, there are other things the show doesn’t do very well, and you wonder why it tries to do them at all. Comedy Suitcase’s mission statement says that the company “strives to bridge the gap between imaginative children’s theater and sophisticated comedy for adults.” It’s a big ambition, and The Harty Boys Save Christmas might have been more successful if “sophisticated comedy for adults” wasn’t defined as being synonymous with “esoteric cultural references.” It feels like Scrimshaw and Weinhagen wrote a funny script, then got Harold Bloom blackout drunk and had him do a rewrite. The show tries so hard that it verges on becoming a satire of itself.
The script is also awkward in its handling of the fact that the Harty Boys’ gendered world has been out-of-date for several decades now. The script sends up the Boys’ sexism, but the kids in the audience are growing up with no memory of a world where more boys than girls graduate from college each year. Becca enjoys Sylvia Plath, which is appropriate given that Becca and the Harty Boys are waging the gender battles of the 1960s.
Gender stereotypes are still with us, but the male conviction that women should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen may not be the most relevant concern for young girls in Minnesota today. The script acknowledges that the Hardy Boys’ ideas about gender haven’t been current for 50 years, so what exactly, in a show meant for children, is the point of spending so much time talking about those ideas? This is one area where the acknowledgement that there is a difference between a show for adults and a show for children might have been an appropriate concession to make.
So I don’t know if I would bring my young children (if I had young children) to The Harty Boys Save Christmas—but I must in honesty report that against the odds, this show really does work. As that deadly missile chased the Hardy Boys, seemingly to their doom, down the center aisle of the theater, the preschool-age girl in front of me turned around with her eyes full of tears. Was this the end for the brave brothers? When the duo came running back, their lives miraculously spared, and landed with pratfalls on the stage, the girl’s tears immediately turned to laughter. Boy howdy, dear reader, that is the magic of theater!
|This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.|