If the thought of another Christmas Carol makes you cringe, or the sugarplum-coated Nutcracker is too sweet for your taste, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel has the perfect holiday antidote: A Civil War Christmas, running through Dec. 30 at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop. Oh, there are carols — of the ”O Tannenbaum” variety, as opposed to ”Frosty the Snowman” — but they’re interspersed with a heavy helping of period tunes, some familiar (the hauntingly beautiful ”There Is a Balm in Gilead”) and some less so (the Underground Railroad-related spiritual ”Follow the Drinking Gourd”). And though they’re beautifully sung and filled with joy, there’s nothing jingle-bell jolly about them.
After all, Vogel, the woman who penned the delicate sexual abuse drama How I Learned to Drive and the AIDS-inspired dramedy The Baltimore Waltz, isn’t about to serve up any saccharine seasonal entertainment. In fact, she’s crafted something both timely and quietly moving: a Christmas-themed portrait of a politically (and racially) segregated nation and a controversial president about to embark on his second term. The year may be 1864, and the president on stage may be Lincoln — played by the reedy, rakish Bob Stillman — but you don’t need a Ph.D. to see a slight parallel to December 2012.
Before you accuse Vogel of riding Steven Spielberg’s coattails, know that Civil War actually premiered in 2008 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. Then, aptly for an ode to American history, it played regional theaters in cities such as Boston and Chicago before arriving in New York. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that director Tina Landau’s production arrives just as Lincoln is becoming a major awards-season contender. But the Lincolns — both Honest Abe and manic wife Mary Todd (Next to Normal Tony winner Alice Ripley) — aren’t the focus of Vogel’s Christmas story. In fact, they spend much of their time in the background: You’ll frequently see Ripley plucking away at the banjo or strumming the guitar, or Stillman showing off his skills on the violin, concertina, guitar, and snare drum. (Using just a keyboard and drum, musical director Andrew Resnick is one heck of a one-man band, but a little instrumental help from the multitalented ensemble members goes a long way.)
While Robert E. Lee, John Wilkes Booth, and Ulysses S. Grant also make appearances, the most compelling characters turn out to be the least famous ones: proud Presbyterian entrepreneur James Wormley and Union sergeant Decatur Bronson, for example, both played by Tony nominee K. Todd Freeman (The Song of Jacob Zulu). His medley of ”The Yellow Rose of Texas” and ”Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” — Bronson’s salute to his wife, Rose (Amber Iman), stolen off their porch by runaway Texans — bursts with hope and heartbreak.
With 11 actors and more than 30 characters populating the Christmas Eve 1864-set tale, a little confusion is inevitable. (Who is that kid with the horse again? And why must a human actor hunch over and play the horse?) But Landau’s staging is mostly taut and uncluttered. It’s amazing what she can do with a handful of chairs and a bunch of stovepipe hats — not to mention with the most legendary stovepipe-hat wearer of them all. At the top of the show, she sends out Stillman — in costume — to instruct the audience to ”silence any devices that we did not have in 1864.” If more presidents delivered preshow announcements, I suspect we’d hear far fewer cellphones ringing in theaters. A-
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