The spirit of the smash Fox sitcom Married With Children lives on in Dysfunctional Family Christmas, now getting its World Premiere at North Hollywood’s newly rechristened BrickHouse Theatre, and if Paul Storiale’s first original holiday comedy is still rough around the edges, topnotch performances and non-stop laughs make it a nontraditional December treat.

Left to Rt BACK_Alex Polyson, Rob Schaumann, Brian Spengel_FRONT Elyse Ashton, Kara Hume_photo Paul Storiale Taking over for Al and Peggy Bundy are Dean and Joanne Logan (Rob Schaumann and Elyse Ashton), about to celebrate their very first Christmas with all three children back home as adults, and their very last one with the kids’ evil grandpa still living under the same roof. Grandpa is, you see, about to be committed to a nearby nursing facility just as Dean and Joanne pack up all their belongings and move south to a new life in Florida.

Unfortunately, Joanne’s gleeful anticipation of breaking the news to Grandpa (“I am going to enjoy the look on his face when I tell him he’s moving out of this house!”) gets nipped in the bud when a check of the old man’s bedroom reveals the inconvenient truth: Grandpa had died in his sleep.

“How could he do this to us!” cries an outraged Joanne before stopping Dean from dialing 911. This long-awaited family reunion will turn into a funeral if the kids find out about Grandpa, and that’s the last thing they need. Christine is bringing home a boyfriend for them to meet, Adam will finally tell them he’s gay, and oh yeah, their youngest is coming home too. “It’ll only be for a few days,” Joanne reminds Dean, and when he starts to protest, she shushes him with “You’re ruining Jesus’ birthday” and a plea to “do this for the kids and baby Jesus.”

And so off to the closet Grandpa gets dragged, all wrapped up in a blanket and ready for burial, though not till after the holidays.

First to arrive is daughter Christine (Kara Hume) and boyfriend/fellow medical student Adam, who’s worried about Joanne’s reaction when she meets him. “She’s going to be angry with me for being a Jew,” he frets, and even angrier when Christine reveals her intention to convert, meaning there’ll be no Christmases ahead for Joanne and Dean’s Jewish grandchildren.

Next to show up is busybody neighbor Mrs. Brackett (Barbera Ann Howard*), recently elected president of their Neighborhood Watch Program and a catty old broad if there ever was one. (When Christine shows Mrs. Braskett her new necklace, the older woman quickly responds, “You’ll have to let me know about what second-hand website you got that at.”) Upon being told that “Grandpa is sick,” Mrs. Braskett heads home to bring over some of her Chicken soup. “It’s to die for,” she raves.

Elyse Ashton, Alex Polcyn_photo Paul Storiale Middle child Adam (Alex Polcyn) then arrives with his laundry … and Katie (Sara Swain), his girlfriend of one week, who learns from Adam that he and his father have gone the past three years without speaking, except  for when Dean says, “I’ll get your mother” when Adam calls.

Even after meeting her son’s apparent girlfriend, Joanne seems unconvinced that he and Katie are actually dating since Adam can’t not be gay. After all, he took ballet lessons as a child. His parents even joined PFLAG on his behalf. Even “girlfriend” Katie thinks Adam might be gay, having frequently caught him staring at men’s bodies.

Last to walk through the Logan front door is youngest child Braden (Brian Spengel), home from New York City, and about whom we’ve already heard Joanne declare, “The third one we didn’t really want, but he was cute, so we kept him.” It’s no wonder then that Braden, a New York actor with a Broadway credit already to his name, is still peeved that his parents didn’t come see his Great White Way debut. (“I wasn’t going to pay $100 to see you supporting someone,” is Joanne’s motherly excuse.)

Throughout all of the above, poor dead Grandpa has had his body moved from closet to bedroom and back to closet again, as first Christine and then Adam have learned the truth about his demise. Only Braden remains clueless, though this is hardly surprising since Joanne calls Adam “our only son,” since Thomas has never even heard about Christine’s younger brother, and since his parents and siblings seem honestly surprised to discover him amongst them, even though he reminds them, “I was already here!”

Rear_Elyse Ashton, Brian Spengel, Alex Polcyn_Barbera Howard_photo Paul Storiale If all this sounds like “a very special episode” of Married With Children, you’re absolutely right. With Storiale’s script capturing that sitcom’s irreverent tone and occasionally crass humor, audiences not demanding Frasier-style sophistication will find plenty to entertain them in Dysfunctional Family Christmas.

Storiale’s script could stand some tweaking. Grandpa gets moved around a bit too much, and for reasons that sometime defy logic. The audience deserves a clearer resolution to Adam’s storyline (Is he or isn’t he?) and a plot thread revolving around Braden’s own secret could be better developed and resolved. Still, any play that has not one but two young men playing Santa (where did that second Santa suit come from?) and convincing everyone that they’re Grandpa in disguise is wonderfully, outlandishly okay with me. At ninety minutes (including a probably superfluous intermission), Dysfunctional Family Christmas doesn’t outstay its welcome, and dysfunctional the Logans may be, but they are also refreshingly prejudice-free, and when all is said and done, every bit as loving as the Nelsons, the Cunninghams, or the Huxtables were in their more picture-perfect way.

1425771_10203028875546483_1564530445_n Storiale directs zestfully, blessed by a cast of SoCal theater vets and some L.A. newbies with bright careers ahead. Ashton and Schaumann bring pep, verve, and topnotch comedy timing to Joanne and Dean, and Storiale regular Howard carries on the crabby neighbor sitcom tradition with gusto. Having paid his dues in cameo roles in a pair of previous Storiale comedies, Clay now gets the chance to shine brightly as Thomas, his innate likeability boding well for career success. Swain, featured in dramatic mode in all three incarnations of Storiale’s The Columbine Project, shows off daffy comedy chops as Adam’s hilariously nymphomaniacal girlfriend opposite a terrific, sexy Polcyn, who’s got plenty of stage presence and metrosexual sass himself. Last but not least are the new-to-Los Angeles Hume (a recent Boston-to-L.A. transplant) and Spengel (fresh from the Chicago area), bringing considerable depth and authenticity to Christine and Braden, in addition to their laugh-getting skills and boy-and-girl-next-door good looks.

Dysfunctional Family Christmas is by far the best looking of the twelve Paul Storiale productions I’ve reviewed. A move to the more intimate BrickHouse Theatre (the former home of Andak Stage Company) and a one-set script has allowed Storiale to design a nicely detailed, relatively authentic looking living room set—with not a one of the extended scene-change blackouts that have slowed down previous productions. Storiale’s lighting design is thoroughly professional too. Costumes (presumably also by Storiale) are just fine as well. Dysfunctional Family Christmas is produced by Storiale and Fulton Entertainment, making it a virtual one-man show.

L to R_Barbera Howard, Brian Spengel_photo Paul Storiale Though theatergoers insistent on Noël Coward (or even Neil Simon) sophistication may find Dysfunctional Family Christmas more than a tad broad for their tastes, and indeed subtlety appears not to be a word in the Logan family lexicon, for anyone in simple need of laughter this holiday season, Dysfunctional Family Christmas will likely fill the bill quite neatly indeed.

*Jennifer Eagle assumes the role of Mrs. Braskett on December 20 and 21.

BrickHouse Theatre, 10950 Peachgrove, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 15, 2013

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