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Dickens Gone a-Wry : Theater: Daniel Sullivan's 'Inspecting Carol' in Laguna is a spoof of the Christmas classic that the playwright swears he loves.

November 15, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — Daniel Sullivan is used to the question: So what's the deal--don't you like Christmas?

Laughter precedes his practiced denial. "Oh, I love Christmas. And I love 'A Christmas Carol.' This is just fun, a farce."

The head of the nationally respected Seattle Repertory Theatre is defending a wry little comedy called "Inspecting Carol," which he wrote in 1991 in collaboration with members of his troupe. It uses a small playhouse production of Charles Dickens' seasonal standby as a springboard for some outrageous humor.

On the eve of the Laguna Playhouse's staging of "Inspecting Carol" (in previews tonight and Wednesday, it opens Thursday), Sullivan notes that "there were a lot of reasons why we thought this would be ironic and why we did it, but one was that so many theaters use 'A Christmas Carol' as an annual fund-raiser. It's become this cash cow, and that makes it good to play around with."

He took his play's basic idea from Gogol's "The Inspector General," in which a corrupt town falls all over itself trying to bribe a clerk thought to be a powerful government investigator.

In Sullivan's incarnation, a woeful theater troupe mistakes a very bad traveling actor as a representative of the National Endowment for the Arts who has come to evaluate the company. Eager to keep its funding, the troupe gives him a key role in its production of "A Christmas Carol," with terrible results.

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Sullivan says his inspiration came several years ago when he was serving on an NEA panel that considers funding for drama groups.

"We learned about a situation involving a playwright who was sent to write an evaluation (of a theater) that was in desperate trouble. The artistic director tried to bribe him by guaranteeing that one of his plays would be included in the theater's next season.

"The panel was shocked by the story. I thought it was hilarious."

The "Christmas Carol" setting was embraced quickly by Seattle Rep's veterans, most of whom, Sullivan says, had at one time or another acted in both meager and classy stagings of the classic and welcomed the opportunity to give it a goosing.

"Just the whole idea of trotting out the same old sets, the same old characters . . . it seemed liberating to us" to tease it a bit. "We also see (the show) as liberating to an audience" that may be overdosing on the sweetness of the season and looking for something different.

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The comedy's sardonic attitude may be black (there's even a suicide at one point), but, Sullivan assures, it is still good-natured and respectful. He points to his own admiration for "A Christmas Carol," which he describes as nothing less than "cultural iconography."

"Aside from the Nativity, there is no other story so easily understood as this one. All of these images (associated with Dickens' tale) are so clear that you don't have to explain them; they resonate with both children and adults."

As for the Laguna Playhouse, artistic director Andrew Barnicle says "Inspecting Carol" is ideal because the theater tries to avoid standard Christmas fare. "We don't do Christmas shows, (but this play retains) some of the spirit of the holidays. It's very funny, simply because 'A Christmas Carol' is so ripe for satire."

* Previews of the Laguna Playhouse production of "Inspecting Carol" are tonight and Wednesday at 8 at the Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. $13. The regular run starts Thursday and will continue through Dec. 18 (Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2). $17 to $22. (714) 494-8021.

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