Published On: Thu, Dec 10th, 2020

Killer comedy: ‘Fruitcakes’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Millman Dwyer

There is a certain literary style that is unmistakable. When there are multiple madcap characters living improbable lives crossing paths in the craziest of ways, you have entered into the land of French farce. And “Fruitcakes” is one of the craziest farces I have seen, and I strongly suggest you take it in, as well. It has much to recommend.

Beyond the extraordinarily hilarious and talented cast, it has a story that you are not likely to hear in any other piece. It is not the typical boy meets girl kind of domestic comedy, though there is romance occurring. Well, it is French, so of course there is romance.

I want you to imagine what would happen if Mel Brooks directed and went to town on a “Law & Order SVU” script. Yes, that is the delightful mayhem that is being brought to you in this adaptation by Louis Palena of the French play from 1979 “Le Pere Noel est un Ordure,” which translates to “Santa Claus is a Piece of Crap.” Though I think they should have kept the title as I accurately translated, it was made into a French movie in 1982 with watered down subtitles so as not to offend American audiences. The popularity of the story was so great that a TV movie in France was done in 1985. There also was a reboot with an American cast in 1994 directed by Nora Ephron that was not as loved by the critics, but which had an amazing cast, including Steve Martin, Madeleine Kahn, Liev Schreiber, Rita Wilson, Garry Shandling, Rob Reiner, Adam Sandler, and Jon Stewart.

Like the French movie “La Cage aux Folles,” the material suffered when exploited by an American movie studio and a famous cast, though “Mixed Nuts” still has its charm.

The Palena adaptation is brilliantly handled by the spot-on quick timing demanded by farce and executed flawlessly by this strong cast. The story has a suicide prevention group called Lifesavers being run by a dysfunctional trio of do-gooders. Phillip (Louis Palena) heads the center, with office manager Mrs. Munchnik (Molly Chase) and phone operator/suicide coach Catherine (Lauren Brader). It is Christmas Eve, when many in the world are depressed. Unfortunately, for the world, no one is particularly good at their job at this suicide hotline. They are getting an eviction notice from their landlord Stanley (Erik Snyder), while the rest of the world around them is going to hell in a hand basket.

There is an ex-con Santa, a.k.a. Felix (Joe Naticchione) whose pregnant girlfriend Gracie (Jill Gibilisco) has had enough. Santa is brandishing a gun. There is a transgendered woman named Chris (Alex Klein)) who calls in with issues. There is a serial killer on the loose called “The Seaside Strangler.” Shake this all up, as if it were a snow globe, and you have a fast-paced comedy that mesmerizes and is something to see.

This is the meaning of true ensemble acting. For me to individually point out performances would be a disfavor to the whole group effort and, anyway, I would have to overuse the word “chameleon,” as so many performers are giving unique characterizations that I have not seen them do before. It is difficult to breathe believability into the absurd, but it is what they do. So, kudos to the entire cast of Lauren Brader, Jordan Brennan, Molly Chase, Jill Gibilisco, Alex Klein, Madison Kotnarowski, Joe Naticchione, Louis Palena, Erik Snyder, Karl Wiegand.

Santa may be wielding a gun onstage and a mass murderer is escaping the cops in this show, but the real criminal act would be not to treat yourself to some crazy holiday cheer and see “Fruitcakes,” lovingly adapted and expertly directed by Louis Palena. Tickets for the theater and for streaming are available at www.musicmountaintheatre.org. It runs through Dec. 13. Also, in the spirit of giving, a gift certificate or a donation to this fine theater would be a nice ask from Santa this season. They continue to provide great work and deserve your support.

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