A few decades ago, when some of the current grand dames and dukes of Seattle theater were younger, they conspired with director Daniel Sullivan—then the head honcho of Seattle Repertory Theater, now a Tony Award winner—to create a holiday play that was a spoof of holiday plays. You can imagine their eureka moment, most likely involving buckets of mulled wine: Cash in on holiday hysteria while making fun of it! We can have our cake and mock it, too! Genius!
And Inspecting Carol was born. The premise: A struggling little theater packed with familiar personalities and clichés (the exasperated stage manager, the emotionally manipulative director who trills her words and is overproud of her Lithuanian extraction, the balding managing director who frets about the budget, the cotton-brained older actors, the shrill and sanctimonious middle-aged actors, etc.) is trying to mount its annual cash-cow production of A Christmas Carol. This year is especially dire for them, since all their funding has evaporated, including a grant from the NEA that is the theater's life preserver. Remember when an annual NEA grant to a small, basically unknown theater was so reliable that it could become a plot point? Me neither. Inspecting Carol is a period piece.
A goofy stranger shows up. He says he wants to be an actor, but he has zero talent. The familiar personalities and clichés, who are barely negotiating their own egos long enough to rehearse a single scene, think he might be an incognito inspector from the NEA whose favorable impression could make or break the company's finances. So they indulge his every stupid idea and ridiculous whim, laying waste to their already-damaged production for the money he may or may not be guarding. (It's a self-conscious riff on Gogol's The Government Inspector.) Spoofy things happen—crises, resolutions, surprises—and in the end, all is well.
The original cast included R. Hamilton Wright, Marianne Owen, and other good actors. The current cast includes Ian Bell, Stephen Hando, and others who don't get enough stage time at big houses like Seattle Rep. Too bad that Inspecting Carol is their showcase—something in the text has been lost in translation. Even if the original was very, very funny, the current incarnation is anemic. Its theater in-jokes, its NEA anxieties, and its caricatures (such as the exasperated stage manager, played by Peggy Gannon, who can roll her eyes so deeply, you can see their whites from the balcony) feel shopworn. I wish the current cast of gifted actors had been given a bucket of mulled wine and allowed to rewrite the play, and create their own jokes for their own time and their own audiences.