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THEATER REVIEW 'MR. PICKWICK'S CHRISTMAS' : Happy Endings : Unity arrives with the second act in this adaptation of Dickens' first published work of fiction.

December 05, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Having been more or less inundated, for good or ill, by the plethora of Yuletide renditions of that most renowned of the creations of Mr. Charles Dickens (we refer, of course, to the ubiquitous Ebenezer Scrooge), it may come as an agreeable surprise to theatergoers in general, and to fans of the writings of the aforesaid Mr. Dickens in particular, to discover an original stage adaptation from the Ensemble Theatre Company of his first published work of fiction, "The Pickwick Papers"--a work that, having fired the loquacious opening volley of the Dickensian assault on the pithy scribblings of his more succinct contemporaries, set the style for his future works with its episodic, long-winded rambling--much like this sentence, in fact.

Fortunately, the amiable Ensemble adaptors, director Robert G. Weiss and Otto Layman, recognize that the attention span of a theater audience is in no way comparable to that of a reader in a state of leisurely indulgence to a series of evenings spent within the folds of a ponderous tome. They have refrained from attempting to cram 900 pages of prose onto the stage a la "Nicholas Nickleby," and have instead contented themselves with a pared-down two-hour excerpt, which they call "Mr. Pickwick's Christmas."

The title is an important signal. This is a work that begs to be appreciated in the warm-hearted, sentimental state of mind that traditionally accompanies the holiday season. In that context, this affectionate treatment makes for pleasant enough family entertainment--it's colorful, upbeat and nicely staged. But in tackling a less familiar work by Dickens, the production teeters precariously between overly specialized subject matter and a simplified treatment that borders on the generic.

Conceived by Dickens as a satire on the optimistic spirit of scientific inquiry that sought to pierce the gothic gloom of Victorian England, "The Pickwick Papers" chronicled the adventures of a band of dilettante explorers who set out to observe and record the social habits of their day.

The four adventurers, headed by Mr. Pickwick himself (played here by James K. Ward), find themselves enmeshed in all manner of complications resulting from their club-room naivete in the ways of the world. That tension propelled Dickens' novel, of course, but the stage does not afford the same opportunity for expository narrative. Many of the characters' ironies and even their motivations remain murky in this treatment.

Dickens was a master at capturing the fine details of eccentricity in manners and speech, and in this respect the stage translation proves problematic. The broad strokes of the Pickwickians are filled in--the introverted poet Snodgrass (Michael Rathbone), the flirtatious Tupman (Nick Hartog) and the sprightly young Winkle (Christopher Vore)--but absent is the essential quirkiness the British have parlayed into a national characteristic.

After watching them amble through a series of comical mishaps for an hour, we finally find the play's unity in the second act.

Mr. Pickwick's landlady (Candice Taylor), having mistaken his ruminations about hiring a manservant for a proposal of marriage, files a breach of promise suit and Mr. Pickwick, refusing to compromise his principles, pays an extended visit to the debtor's prison, much to the dismay of his colleagues.

During this test of character, Ward finally shows us the determination beneath the pompous shell that makes Pickwick truly admirable and not a mere buffoon.

Ultimately, "Mr. Pickwick's Christmas" affirms the timeless values of tolerance and generosity of spirit, never in overabundance at any time of year.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Mr. Pickwick's Christmas." Performed through Dec. 22, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. except for 2 p.m. matinees Dec. 22; at the Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Tickets are $14 Fridays and Saturdays, $12 Thursdays, $10 Wednesdays and Sundays. For reservations or information, call 962-8606.

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