Allison Buck and Michael Micalizzi in
Looking at Christmas
(© Joan Marcus)
Allison Buck and Michael Micalizzi in
Looking at Christmas
(© Joan Marcus)
In Steven Banks' Looking at Christmas, playing at the Flea, a man and a woman embark on a journey through Manhattan to take in the seasonal displays in department store windows after meeting cute in front of Bloomingdale's on Christmas Eve. However, after the incipient couple gazes at the tableaux that celebrate the season, the figures in each of the windows come to life, offering commentary on their existence and the vagaries of their legacies. Unfortunately, this exercise in holiday-time revisionism often proves to be anything but merry, given Banks' strained attempts at humor.

At first, theatergoers root for would-be novelist John (Michael Micalizzi), after learning that he has just been fired from his job in children's books and is in no mood to celebrate. It's a plight that inspires identification in these tight economic times and Micalizzi's charismatic performance is filled with nuance and a genuine hangdog warmth that endears. There's even a spark of chemistry initially between John and Charmian (Allison Buck), who has found that, during her first four months in the city, she has not been heralded as the next Meryl Streep.

But as the play progresses and the couple drifts from store to store becoming more intimate, the edge that Buck brings to her character's quirkiness proves abrasive, and as the couple wanders through the city, theatergoers may find themselves wondering if John might do better going to the party that he had promised to attend.

The septet of actors who portray a variety of infamous holiday characters who spring to life in between the scenes between John and Charmian sometimes enliven the proceedings. For instance, John Russo and Betty Lippit are both absolutely charming as the couple from O Henry's The Gift of the Magi, until their conversation devolves into the husband's fantasies about enlivening their woe-begone holidays with some cross-dressing.

More successful is the scene between a jaded and opulently dressed Russian model (Lippit) and an effervescent snowman (Raúl Sigmund Julia). The frisson between her ennui and his perkiness amuses as does his awkwardness when he has to waylay her sexual advances. Equally impressive are Russo and Holly Chou's turns as they play a couple of World War II era kids waiting for Santa. Each of the performers brings earnest childlike awe to the sequence that proves remarkably heartwarming.

Throughout the show, Gabriel Berry's costumes for these display characters are whimsical delights that spur the broadest smiles in this wearying jaunt through Manhattan at Christmas and the secular icons that are part of the season.