Appalachian Christmas Homecoming
Taproot Theatre, 781-9707.
Through Dec 29.

Remember the old Dolly Parton Christmas specials? Dolly would be in a rundown log cabin on some snowy mountaintop somewhere, singing twangy down-home Christmas carols and depressing songs about some stinky old jacket her granny made for her out of old underwear and oil rags, since they were all too poor to buy fancy store-bought presents. She'd strum a banjo with those six-inch press-on nails, look at the camera with those big soulful eyes, and make me feel like absolute shit for being such a spoiled, selfish, city-dwelling brat. God, I loved those fucking specials. And you know? Barring the conspicuous absence of Dolly Parton, Taproot Theatre's Appalachian Christmas Homecoming is exactly the same thing.

The world of holiday theater has been suffering for ages, and usually leaves would-be theatergoers with two options: the done-to-death standbys that have become more torture than tradition, and newer shows dripping with postmodern sarcasm and tiresome irony. But Appalachian Christmas Homecoming is something different--something that touches a deeper, tenderer spot. It's a rich and cockle-warming Christmas stew of some traditional but mostly obscure Christmas music and lore. Ostensibly it's the story of the long-ago Christmas courtship of two erstwhile mountain sweethearts in the hills of Mossy Creek, Georgia. But the story line is pretty much secondary to the hauntingly beautiful and touching music, which is the true raison d'être of this production. As an audience member, you are basically a fly on the wall at an old-fashioned family holiday gathering: Yarns are spun, songs are sung, and memories are embellished upon. The cast is strong and endearing to a one: Edd Key (also the music director) is a dynamo as Tom, the feisty daddy, but the true accolades must go to Theresa Holmes as endearing momma Sharon. Her angelic voice made this spoiled city-dwelling shithead's eyes well up a time or two, I can tell you. Dolly would be so proud. ADRIAN RYAN

The Hothouse
Liberty Deli, 935-8420.
Through Dec 29.

A Harold Pinter play in a deli? I have to admit the prospect made me wary, but swayed by the gimmick of a buffet dinner before the show, I set off for the wilds of West Seattle with my adventurous (and perpetually ravenous) date in tow. After ordering a bottle of gulpable red wine, we dashed to the front of the food line. Greedily, I heaped my plate high with the most delicious coleslaw I've ever tasted, pesto pasta, and a green salad (both greatly improved by the generous application of several ladles of blue cheese dressing). My date had the same, with the addition of duck à l'orange and a slab of glistening ham. Though the food was satisfying, it wasn't worth a trip over the bridge.

The play, however, was delicious. Pinter wrote this searing commentary on bureaucracy and insanity in 1958, but for some unfathomable reason chose not to produce it until 1980. It's easy to see why it became an immediate success. Even 50 years after it was penned, the alcoholic and sociopathic civil servants creeping through the hallways of an insane asylum on Christmas Day, sputtering absurd dialogue at one another like poisonous darts, remain just as relevant and terrifying as ever. And they certainly act as a bracing antidote to the season's more sugary offerings.

Of course, this cast is actually creeping past cold cases of corned beef, which is why special notice must be made of director Bill Dore's brilliant staging. Using black drapes, he managed to carve out a playing environment that would have defeated less capable actors. But this talented cast (most notably Ken Holmes, Nick Stewart, and Eric Newman) careens confidently in and out of the tiny space at breakneck speed. Tight performances, a seldom seen work by an important playwright, and kick-ass coleslaw--trust me, that is worth a trip over the bridge. TAMARA PARIS

Crouching Elves, Hidden Packages (The Musical)
Pork Filled Players at Theatre Off Jackson, 365-0282.
Through Dec 23.

The problem with my night was not simply that the Pork Filled Players put on a bad show, it was that I was having a splendid night catching up with old friends who were visiting for the holidays. I was listening to hilarious stories before and after the show: One friend brought her new boyfriend to her family's Hanukkah party--and her dad gave this new (Catholic) boyfriend Judaism for Dummies. A vegetarian aunt of another friend (allegedly) let the Thanksgiving turkey burn for a while before alerting someone.

Then the Pork Filled Players. (Sigh.) To their credit, I did count four skits that had the audience laughing--one of which had it howling. Maybe three or four more skits had people grinning and chuckling, but as for the other 16 skits.... The jokes were dull, especially the ones that focused on their multicultural staff. There were no engaging characters, and there was almost no sense of comic timing. So many lines dropped like dead fish onto the stage, and there was absolutely no improvisation to inspire life. The ongoing holiday theme only served to make me realize that there was something inside me taking a long winter's nap throughout the show.

Oddly, the one skit that had the audience (myself included) laughing with abandon did not have a holiday theme--it was a song that fused The Wizard of Oz and sexually transmitted diseases. This is the first time I've seen the PFP, so I have hope that they have better material when they're not so seasonally focused (because hope blooms eternal in the human heart, especially these days). BRIAN GOEDDE