The deadly-looking knife Colin hides under the queen-size bed he’s about to share with prostitute Salome in The Christmas Present clues us in from the get-go that Guy Picot’s dark holiday comedy isn’t going to be the sort of warm-hearted fare that usually fills our theaters each December.

Following four UK productions and a raved-about American debut last year at one of L.A.’s theater gems, The Christmas Present returns for another holiday-go-round at Sacred Fools, directed by its playwright and with its trio of 2011 stars intact.

 The Salome (Sasha Higgins) whom Colin (Troy Blendell) has rented from Xmas Eve to Boxing Day on the 26th as his “Christmas Present” is precisely the kind of luscious brunette to fulfill any straight British male’s sexual fantasies, though we soon learn that Colin has more on his mind than just getting his rocks off—that and whatever use he plans to put that knife to.

What the lonely 40ish divorcee is hoping to experience with Salome (whose real name it turns out is Holly) is the “affection, comfort, and companionship” that are so sorely lacking in his daily life, even if it’s only on a bought-and-paid-for thirty-six hour fantasy basis.

Holly does not hesitate to burst Colin’s bubble, telling him in no uncertain terms, “The sort of good time that you seem to want … We can’t really be that, can we? We haven’t earned that from each other.”

Persistent bloke that he is, Colin does somehow manage to convince Holly to go along with his fantasy Christmas wish, but there’s still that knife lurking ominously under the bed they’re about to share.

 And that’s just the half of it, quite literally half of The Christmas Present, for not long after Colin and Holly have met cute, Lemon Baarsden’s theatrical lighting changes from the burnished glow in which he has bathed our two protagonists to a brighter, starker light under which Colin greets a second, and very different, Salome.

Salome Number Two (Mandi Moss) is a considerably coarser, more plain-spoken hooker (real name Debbie) than Holly’s call girl de rève, one whose list of I-don’t-do-thises and I-won’t-do-thats seems hardly likely to satisfy any man’s sexual fantasies, let alone Colin’s desire for comfort and joy on a lonely Christmas Eve.

For the rest of The Christmas Present’s first act, Picot’s script alternates between scenes of Colin and Salome/Holly and Colin and Salome/Debbie, played under alternating warmly golden and starkly white lighting plots, and we wonder (or this reviewer did at least) whether we might possibly be seeing two successive Christmas Eves. The fact Colin hid the knife under “Debbie’s light” suggests that he intends it for her, and Holly’s mention early on that she has taken over the name Salome from a another rent girl had me wondering if she just might be victim number two.

By Act One’s dramatic fadeout, playwright Picot’s real intentions have become clear, and though other The Christmas Present reviews have spoiled the surprise, this one will not.

 Suffice it to say that it is Colin and Debbie who end up the center and heart of this tale of two lonely, angry, yet still somehow hopeful souls, a dramatic comedy whose characters capture our attention, if not quite our hearts, all the way through to The Christmas Present’s just-right, cliché-free dénouement.

Picot’s script is clever and original, and under his sharp direction, all three actors give incisively-honed performances,  fine-tuned over the course of last year’s run.

Blendell’s terrific Colin keeps us on the edge of our seats, and not simply wondering how and when he plans to use that knife. Far more than that, Blendell creates an all too real character whose conflicting emotions and desires are all too human.

Moss is splendid too as a tell-it-like-it-is single mom whose way of supplementing her welfare check may not fit Colin’s image of what’s right and what’s wrong, but which suits her very well indeed, thank you.

Higgins, sensational in last year’s Kowalski, does memorable work once again as a saucy-but-sweet young thing who’s almost too good to be true.

 The Christmas Present unfolds on the same stage where Sacred Fools’ The Coarse Acting Show has been running concurrently, the likely reason that Baarsden is credited as lighting consultant rather than designer (and Tifanie McQueen as set/costume consultant). Suffice it to say that the two designers’ work here is first-rate, with particular snaps for the outfits McQueen has created for Colin, Holly, Debbie, and the two Salomes,

The Christmas Present is produced by Erin Parks (who played Holly in Brighton a few years back) and Richard Levinson. Joseph Beck is associate producer. Ari Radousky is stage manager.

The Christmas Present makes for a terrific alternative to the many A Christmas Carols running around town. Though about the only thing the two tales share is their English setting and the word Christmas in their title, much like its better known predecessor, The Christmas Present manages in its own acidic way to send theatergoers back out into the December night with more than a bit of holiday spirit in our hearts.

Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 11, 2012
Photos: Jessica Sherman-Prince, C.M. Gonzalez

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