By Lynn Venhaus
The promising new direction of the Westport Playhouse as a live entertainment venue bodes well for the future, and the one-woman holiday show, “The Twelve Dates of Christmas,” appeals to merry revelers.
Actor/playwright Ginna Hoben wrote this personal comedy that was first performed in 2010, and it’s a heartfelt and humorous chronicle of her dating hits and misses during a calendar year.
After starting out the mega-holiday season with Thanksgiving at her family’s home in Ohio, the lead character Mary must endure the humiliation of seeing her fiancé kiss his co-worker on national television during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is after he bailed on the trip, saying he was ill.
Oh, the horror of the life you expected vs. the real world is the gift that keeps on giving during the Christmas holiday and beyond. And those pesky female relatives that offer advice or judgment or know better.
Mary is an actress, and obviously a drama queen, sharing her rocky journey. The versatile Jennifer Theby Quinn dials it up to 11 sometimes to depict the jilted, bitter, and frustrated single woman. She does find the funny in the pathos – I mean, you kinda sorta must for survival.
She conveys a gamut of emotions, as she allows herself to jump back into the dating world. Some of the romances are weird, creepy, absurd, and comical, which leads to cynicism, but there are glimmers of hope – and more heartbreak.
The material lends itself to broad interpretations, and in its format, is not as polished as the Hallmark Channel rom-coms, yet there are nuggets of recognition in the hook-ups.
When fate intervenes in a good way, Theby-Quinn is at her best in the quieter, more touching moments — those heart-on-sleeve confessions, and revelations where she is at her most natural.
The genuine encounters with a charming little boy playing Tiny Tim in a production Mary is in are designed to tug at the heartstrings. And Theby-Quinn is effective in depicting the sweetness she experiences dealing with such an innocent 5-year-old. You can feel your heart melt as hers does (and she differentiates the characters well).
A sunny presence, Theby-Quinn is energized by the audience and works hard to engage them. To keep the show lively, director Lee Anne Mathews has kept her moving all over the stage so it’s not as boxed in as other solo shows.
That’s a lot of stamina for 90 minutes, and it’s a demanding run as well (nearly a month). She’s a tenacious trouper, familiar with the space, after playing Kate Monster in “Avenue Q” in 2019 and Fiona in “Flanagan’s Wake” in early 2020, then forced to shut down during the coronavirus lockdown.
Theby-Quinn is one of the most skilled performers in St. Louis, impressive in dramas, comedies, and musicals, earning two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards and multiple nominations.
She can plum more emotional depths, given tougher material, as these lightweight vignettes are designed to mostly elicit laughs and resonate. (But does an actress in the big city? Of course – because she’s as exhausted as other single women — “One hundred and twenty-five jackasses it takes to meet one decent man!” is my favorite line. We can all empathize).
Single women who have been unlucky at love and those who have had good relationships that didn’t work out, can understand Mary’s quest for Mr. Right. Perhaps the material would be more endearing if there was a guy to tango with, but Mary ‘s tasked with performing other characters (about a dozen) vocally, and that helps.
The snazzy production values – a large LED screen adds perky images and clever animated artwork from master video designers Margery and Peter Spack – help to open it and add to the storytelling, instead of having a boxed-in feeling that can typically happen in solo shows.
It was late in the run when I saw it, and the sound was distorted at times, but according to colleagues who had seen it on different nights, it was just fine, no problems.
Jacob Baxley incorporates a fine mix of songs to enhance the holidays throughout the year, and Dan MacLaughlin’s lighting design adds warmth. Liz Henning is listed as a wardrobe consultant, and that’s always a good sign. Lenny Mink’s and Kurtis Gibbs’ video editing and photography enhances the show, as does Joel Wilper’s work as an audio/video technician.
One can understand the desire for a crowd-pleaser at this crazy-busy time of year when everyone’s trying to have a joyous holiday season, and that this is a tad overzealous in trying to ramp up the jolly.
But the sincerity and goodwill evident both on and off stage works in its favor.
“The 12 Dates of Christmas” runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23 at the Westport Plaza, in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment District. Because of COVID-cancellation at the run’s end, a special 2 p.m. performance on Dec. 30 has been scheduled and tickets available at the box office. For more information, visit www.thewestportplayhouse.com
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.