The Carols of Christmas

The song’s the thing in The Gift of the Magi
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 8, 2009

One can't just break out into Christmas carols, even in this warm and fuzzy season. We need a reason. In The Gift of the Magi (through December 22), the Contemporary Theater Company has found one in an adaptation of the O. Henry short story.

Cleverly, they arranged for a receptive setting, turning Wakefield's Midtown Café into a dinner theater. Whatever happened to dinner theaters? After a decent meal and convivial conversation, audiences are agreeable, prepared to enjoy a nice little play. They are usually comedies, since this is the occasion for only the most easily digestible of theatrical fare. It's all quite a bargain here, with $35 tickets including a three-course meal.

O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter, whose short stories around the turn of the 20th century tended to be sentimental and always ended with some eyebrow-raising plot twist. In "The Gift of the Magi," O. Henry had a poor young couple, Jim and Della, happy in their shabby one-room apartment, subsisting on love. Come Christmas time, they each sell the one thing of value they own in order to buy a gift for their mate. She sells her knee-length hair to buy him an expensive watch chain; he sells his pocket watch, which has father handed down to him, to buy tortoise shell combs. Imagine their surprise.

The story was short and sweet. In stretching this out to nearly an hour, the theater company has doubled the cast and added some story elements, all well and good. But as adapted by Andy Hoover and directed by Christopher J. Simpson, the play unfortunately compounds the weaknesses of the O. Henry style — treacly sentiment and one-note resolution — with contrived characterizing. Too much of the dialogue and action serves authorial convenience rather than what actual people would say or do. Nevertheless, since most people attracted to this play are propelled by the season's good wishes, most will resist anything that nudges them off course, I expect.

This Della (Shannon Lee Clair) and Jim (Matthew Royality-Lindman) work at a classical radio station and in finance, respectively. They're now living in one room, on her meager salary, because his hedge fund employer has laid him off. They are somehow good friends with a pretentious couple, Margot (Heidi Beckmann) and Preston (Michael Boyce). Margot is so privileged and vacant that she still believes in Santa Claus; Preston is so chirpily sleazy that he doesn't object to his and Jim's boss breaking a promise to hire him back soon. (We are also to believe that Jim would agree to not work another hedge fund in order to be hired back — and wait more than two years.)

Their cookie drawer contains only three $20s and a crumbling Oreo, and Christmas is approaching. Jim has been in the habit of using their limited funds to buy dresses for Della, hoping to hit upon one she finds worthy of wearing to the opera. (No, he is not supposed to be a moron and she doesn't seem to be a sadist, although no husband in history has presumed to not let his wife herself choose such an important dress.)

One thing retained from the original story is that he has a pocket watch, a family heirloom. As a perk from work, she gets a pair of box seats to Aida. The plot proceeds, of course, like an argument for predestination.

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