REVIEW: The Santaland Diaries (Theater Wit)

  
  

Spend a bawdy evening with Santa’s fave martini-swilling elf

   
   

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Theater Wit presents
   
The Santaland Diaries
   
Written by David Sedaris
Adapted by
Joe Mantello
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A few days after Black Friday—and are you sick of it yet?  Has Christmas decor begun to look blindingly tacky to you?  Does the constant replay of Christmas tunes already fill you with bored revulsion?  You may need a retreat to an ashram where the saffron-robed monks have never heard of Christmas. 

Or you could try The Santaland Diaries, now onstage at Theater Wit, directed by Jeremy Wechsler.  A new holiday classic—although new is really stretching it since David Sedaris first regaled NPR audiences with his elfin misadventures in 1992.  Still, this ironic, melancholy 90’s swipe at America’s most oversold holiday has held up well, if for no other reason than because we, as a country, consistently make the same old mistakes about Christmas that we have ever made before.

Urinal - potrait“I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide the grinding enthusiasm that Santa requires,” quips Mitchell Fain.  His performance is definitely sharper, more caustic than Sedaris’s, who delivers his tale with soft, wry, and distanced resignation to the absurdities of his elf-training at Macy’s for Christmas.  Indeed, in a startling departure from Sedaris’s original work, the actor makes a stab at comparing Santa with Satan.  But who’s to say that’s wrong? 

In it’s own light, sardonic way, The Santaland Diaries is a parade of Christmas horrors, another example of man’s inhumanity to man, the banality of marketing manipulation wrapped in candy-striped tights and a green velvet coat.  Macy’s Santaland, constructed as the happiest place on earth at the most joyous time of year, gets exposed at its worst in this humorous yet Bruegelian portrait of communal venality and desperation. 

Being an elf in the service of Macy’s exposes one to a thousand humiliations and we can be grateful to Fain’s impeccable comic timing that these get rattled off with a full range, from self-deprecation to sly satire to burlesque to savage and direct improv with the audience.  But elfin humiliations in the name of commercialism are not the worst of Satanland Santaland.  There are much worse:  parents who slap their children because they won’t stop crying and get on Santa’s lap, parents who request a “traditional” Santa—by that they mean a Caucasian one, parents who manipulate their children to promote their own political views and parents who tell their children it’s okay to pee in the artificial snow.  Even martinis cannot allay the madness that only escalates in the countdown toward Christmas day.

IMG_4786_JPGFor this reason the act’s one last magical moment doesn’t quite sell.  Out of a million wonderfully weird and self-absorbed Santas, one shows up to treat the children as they should be treated and teach us all a Christmas lesson.  It’s the one sentimental false note of Joe Mantello’s adaptation.  While it might send the crowd out of the theater with a smile, it simply cannot reconcile all atrocities committed from attempting to manufacture warm and fuzzy holiday feelings to promote higher retail sales.

Real Christmas spirit can’t be bought or sold.  Real magical childhood moments are fleeting and unpredictable.  Real development as a human being means accepting life’s flaws and imperfections, not inhumanely overreaching to grasp at meaningless once-in-a-lifetime perfection.  If nothing else, The Santaland Diaries can help you laugh off the Christmas madness, even if that madness has become embedded in our yearly traditions.            

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   
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Theater Thursday: The Book of Liz

Thursday, September 16

The Book of Liz by Amy and David Sedaris

 

Chemically Imbalanced Theater 
1420 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago

bookoflizJoin the cast and crew of The Book of Liz (our review ★★★★) after the show for a discussion and wine and cheeseball reception. Amy Sedaris‘ famous cheese ball recipes will be served. Sister Elizabeth Donderstock is Squeamish, has been her whole life. She makes cheese balls (traditional and smoky) that sustain the existence of her entire religious community, Clusterhaven. However, she feels unappreciated among her Squeamish brethren, and she decides to try her luck in the outside world. New comedy from the talent family, David and Amy Sedaris.

 
Show begins at 8 p.m.
Event begins immediately following the performance.

Tickets: $25
For reservations call 800.838.3006 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

REVIEW: The Book of Liz (Chemically Imbalanced Comedy)

Innovation triumphs over imitation

 

 

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Chemically Imbalanced Comedy presents
   
The Book of Liz
   
Written by Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
1420 W. Irving Park (map)
through December 18th |  tickets: $18  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Amy Sedaris is a nut. I’ve been following her career since her early days on Comedy Central’s surrealist sketch show “Exit 57” (directed by Annoyance Theatre founder Mick Napier). Unlike her female contemporaries Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have both deservedly found success on network television, Sedaris has never learned, or perhaps wanted, to tone down her irreverent brand of humor and repackage it for the masses, as evidenced by the darkly hilarious Strangers With Candy. In short, she is a unique spirit that demands a cult following.

Book of Liz - Sarah Rose Graber That is why I was blown away by Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s remount of its production of The Book of Liz, a play penned by Sedaris and her equally talented brother, David Sedaris. Sarah Rose Graber fills in for the title character, Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a character originally portrayed by Sedaris herself, and brings an energy that is both congruent with the play’s wacky tone while wholly original. This is significant because I would expect Sedaris’ shadow to intimidate most actresses into paying homage, but not so with Graber.

The Book of Liz concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as the Squeamish. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. Her patience is tested when parishioner Brother Brightbee (Brian Kash) visits from a nearby community to learn the lucrative craft. It is then that Liz resolves to run away and experience the outside world.

While on the outside, Liz encounters a cast of colorful characters, including a Ukrainian couple that speaks with cockney accents and a colonial-themed restaurant staffed by recovering alcoholics. Meanwhile, back at the Squeamish community, Brother Brightbee becomes increasingly frustrated as he fails again and again to replicate the famous cheeseball recipe.

Graber deserves all the praise she can get for her wide-eyed portrayal of Liz. She is unwavering in her commitment to the character’s little tics, from her squeaky voice to her “Gosh darn” facial expressions. Equally worthy of praise is her supporting cast, including Kash, who did double duty by filling in for Bryan Beckwith, the actor slated to play restaurant manager Duncan. As Brother Brightbee, Kash’s hyperbolized passive aggression toward Liz makes for some tense comedy. Adam El-Sharkawi, too, does an outstanding job as Reverend Tollhouse, the Squeamish community’s no-nonsense leader. In one of the play’s only dramatic scenes, Liz confronts the Reverend about his workhorse ways. Here, Graber and El-Sharkawi forge a genuinely touching connection in the midst of the otherwise hair-brained comedy.

Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful. Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s space is tight—incredibly tight. And yet she manages to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment.

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s The Book of Liz stays true to the Sedaris spirit. Fortunately, this does not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. If you are looking for a good laugh (and who isn’t these days), check out this production!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Cast (*indicates returning cast members)

*Sarah Rose Graber…Liz
*Brian Kash…Brother Brightbee
*Nathan Petts…Donny/Visil
*Cynthia Shur…Cecily/Dr. Barb
*Adam El Sharkawi …Rev. Tollhouse
*Lina Bunte…Sister Buterworth
Laura Wilkinson…Oxanna
Eric Bays…Yvonne
Bryan Beckwith…Duncan
Directed by *Angie McMahon

  
  

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REVIEW: An Evening with David Sedaris (Steppenwolf)

An evening well spent

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Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
An Evening With David Sedaris
   
at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
through June 13th  | 
more info
tickets: currently sold out, but call 312-335-1650 for updates

I have read a couple of David Sedaris books over the years and I wasn’t sure what to expect of an evening with the author himself. The excitement in the lobby of the Steppenwolf Theatre was muted and yet palpable. This was an NPR kind of crowd and that was cool with me. Still, as a person who has found myself laughing davidsedaris150x200uncontrollably on the “L’ while reading “Naked”, I wondered how Mr. Sedaris would pull off such a feat as being hysterically funny in person.

He entered the stage without a lot of fanfare carrying a binder and what turned out to be a thrift store painting of Parisian ragamuffins. Sedaris got right down to business reading from his new book titled “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary” (with illustrations by Ian Falconer) due in fall 2010. He called them his take on the fable and indeed the two that he told had a moral.

Mr. Sedaris tells the first fable from the point of view of a curious owl that asks questions of the more interesting prey. This owl is on a quest to be more than just his appetites and drive to hunt. If the prey has an interesting story, the owl releases it only to watch his parasitic (and hilariously stupid) family show up to eat the poor creatures anyway. The tales are told in a matter of fact style that is both absurd and surreal. I have yet to shake the image of the owl’s passive aggressive mother arriving as he is about to snack on an unfortunate rabbit.

He shared another fable of a bully rabbit based on an incident with airport security that was also dark and visceral. I don’t know of many people who can make decomposition and carrion quite so funny. He shared that the fables would also be released in audio format and that the incomparable Elaine Stritch would read the bully rabbit story.

Good storytellers reveal the world more than tell the listener or reader something new. There are a multitude of facts on this planet but Sedaris crafts the story behind them and puts a kaleidoscope spin on even scientific facts. As part of the owl fable, there is something revealed about leeches and hippos that could have been a gross out moment. I took away a new attitude about leeches and a new respect for gerbils.

Sedaris finished the evening with excerpts from his diary that revealed more of how his process works and then opened the floor for questions. I will admit to anxiety over the Q&A part of the evening. There is always some yahoo who wants to have the deepest question to prove that they “get” the subject matter and it usually opens the gates of pandering pseudo-intellectual hell. Thank the Universe that was not the case this evening. There were good and respectful questions, and Mr. Sedaris was most accommodating. He spoke of what he is currently reading and who his inspiration was for live performance (Whoopi Goldberg). He also bought a lovely parting gift in the aforementioned Parisian ragamuffins painting. It was such an endearing moment when he asked if anyone collected thrift shop paintings and then gave it to the one person who admitted such a hobby. He also brings books and other knick-knacks to give away on occasion. It is a lovely to see beyond the surface of the absurdities of life. I recalled our velvet rendition of “Lady and the Tramp” in my childhood living room and wondered what happened to it.

Mr. Sedaris travels quite a bit for his work and has some delightful tales of time spent on planes and in airports. I would say that you should take care with your attire should he be around. Above all do not wear ethnically challenging hair or colloquialisms on your tee shirt. You will find yourself in a story and deservedly mocked.

An Evening with David Sedaris is playing at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre through June 13th 2010. Try your best to score a ticket through www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650. The show that I saw was sold out and there were hopeful people willing to wait on standby. It is worth the ticket and I look forward to the book both written and in audio form. Due to David Sedaris, a trip to the zoo is forever changed and I will be checking out the hippopotamus in a whole new way.

       
       
Rating: ★★★
      
      

2009 Chicago Christmas Theater

Christmas Show Round-Up

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By Barry Eitel

With all those holiday shows out in Chicago right now, it’s hard to decide what to see on top of all the shopping and avoiding extended family. And there is something for everyone out there, from Dickensian classics to ones celebrating the seedier side of December. This season has seen a fairly controversial Christmas on the Chicago theatre scene. For one, there is the on-going feud between American Theatre Company and American Blues Theatre, both of which are simultaneously visiting the village of Bedford Falls with “radio” productions of It’s a Wonderful Life. Just a bit awkward. And then there is the whole Civic Opera Christmas Carol fiasco, where producer/ex-convict Kevin Von Feldt promised a cavalcade of stars and then the whole project somehow fell through. Not to worry, though. There is plenty of goodwill towards man out there to keep you entertained until January.

Luckily for you, the elves at Chicago Theatre Blog have put together a Holiday Theatre Guide to find the perfect show for you. So bust out the coffee and pumpkin pie, and enjoy our sleigh ride through the holiday theatre season.

IF YOU’RE IN TO LONG-STANDING TRADITIONS

Go see the Goodman’s Christmas Carol (★★★½). The show has 32 years behind it and the list of actors who have played past Scrooges reads like a Hall of Fame for Chicago actors. This year’s version has a nice mix of the time-honored and the refreshing. Larry Yando does a remarkable job as Scrooge, bringing out new facets of the usually stiff character. Most of the production in terms of design has not changed over the years, but it still gets results emotionally (and financially). Even without overhauling the dusty script or design, Bill Brown’s strikingly honest production can melt even the most cynical Scrooges in the audience (our review here).

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IF YOU DON’T MIND TRAVELING TO INDIANA

Then The Christmas Schooner at Theatre at the Center (★★★★) is the show for you. Once usual fare at the now-deceased Bailiwick Arts Center, the show has moved on to its new home in Munster, Indiana. The Theatre at the Center production revels in furthering the orchestrations and design. Called the “most Midwestern” of the Christmas shows out there, the musical tells the tale of 19th Century German immigrants, Christmas trees, and a ship carrying very important holiday cargo. With the vast amount of Equity actors and Christmas cheer, The Christmas Schooner is worth the trip (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE A FAN OF ROCK OPERAS

You should see the musical stylings in The Snow Queen  (★★★), the annual Christmas show at Victory Gardens. Adapted by Frank Galati from a Hans Christian Anderson story, this little musical tells the story of a girl battling an evil snow queen in order to rescue her friend. There’s puppets, live music, and plenty of reindeer. If you like your Christmas carols with a little more guitar and a little less pipe organ, you should head on down to Victory Gardens to catch this gem (our review here).

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IF YOU LOVE SPECTACLE

Then check out Redmoon’s Winter Pageant (★★½). The famously choreography-and-spectacle-oriented company’s foray into holiday shows is a wonder to behold. The show boasts a breakneck pace and very little dialogue, so it is sure to delight the entire family. With their focus on magical theatrics, Redmoon have created a show that celebrates what we love about winter (our review here).

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IF YOU HATE CHRISTMAS SHOWS

You should take a look at A Red Orchid Theatre’s A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant (★★★).  Or take a look at the production going on at Next Theatre (★★½) in Evanston. Either way, you’ll enjoy these children acting out the history and theory of Scientology, as dictated by L. Ron Hubbard. And most likely, you’ll be a little frightened. Your inner cynic, however, will love the fact that children are pulling off this juicy satire about one of the world’s most lucrative religions (our reviews here and here).

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A SHOW UNDER 90 MINUTES

Miracle on 34th Street (★★★½) presented by Porchlight Music Theatre could be the show for you. Taking place at the Theatre Building Chicago, this adaptation is not really a straight musical besides a select number of Christmas carols. Through condensing the most memorable section of the classic 1947 film, director L. Walter Stearns comes in at a kid-friendly 80 minutes. Even with this abridged adaptation, you’ll be reminded why you fell in love with the story in the first place (our review here).

IF YOU’RE JEWISH

There’s always the snarky Whining in the Windy City: Holiday Edition, the one-woman show at the Royal George featuring the sarcastic Jackie Hoffman. She plays the Grandmama in The Addams Family  (review★★★)  and rants in this show on Mondays, her off-nights. Hoffman whines about children, her current role at the Oriental, and, especially, the holidays, Chanukah or otherwise. It all makes for a pretty cathartic Monday night.

IF YOU WANT TO TAKE A TRIP TO BEDFORD FALLS

Than two routes are available to you. You could either see American Theatre Company’s It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (★★★) or American Blues Theatre (comprised of many former ATC ensemble members) present It’s A Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!  Even though one does have an exclamation point in the title, both are well-done and feature decent performances and live radio sound effects. Yet both have their subtle differences, ABT relying more heavily on music and the charm of the Biograph Theatre, while ATC sticks a bit closer to the time period. Both stage/radio adaptations capture the charm and sentimentality of Frank Capra’s original film (our review here).

IF YOU’VE HAD A CRAPPY SEASONAL JOB

Than you’ll identify with Mitchell Fain, who stars in Theater Wit’s one-man show The Santaland Diaries (★★★). A stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ delightfully subversive essay of the same name, the production follows the adventure of Fain as he works at Macy’s as the elf Crumpet. This is not a straight reading of Sedaris’ work. Fain brings his own personality to the play and inserts his own stories, making this quite a different experience than just reading the essay, like all good stage adaptations (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE NOSTLAGIC FOR STOP-MOTION ANIMATION

You might want to take a look at Annoyance Theatre’s live action version of Rankin /Bass’ 1964 television special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (★★★½). Surprisingly, Annoyance does a faithful translation for the stage, considering they’re known for their destruction of anything sentimental (the show is running alongside Cockette’s: A Christmas Spectacular). With the music and characters of the beloved original, this Rudolph is meant to enchant theatergoers from 1 to 92 (our review here).

Although there are only a few days before Santa comes around, there are still plenty of options offered by the bounteous Chicago theatre scene. Don’t be fooled into thinking this guide presents everything out there, either. For some other offerings, check the review listing on the side.

REVIEW: Theater Wit’s “SantaLand Diaries”

Theater Wit presents:

The Santaland Diaries

by David Sedaris
adapted by
Joe Mantello
directed by
Jeremy Wechsler
thru January 2nd (ticket info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

elf2 Who doesn’t love holiday traditions? Especially if one of your traditions is listening to David Sedaris’ reading of his radio essay “SantaLand Diaries.” When this piece first aired on NPR in 1992, it struck a nerve hard enough to propel Sedaris into a public radio superstar. It’s a true story about the underemployed writer living in New York taking a job as an Elf at Macy’s one Christmas season. Perhaps it’s the medium that makes it so personally appealing, but it’s also Sedaris’ writing, which is confessional, hilarious and honest.

For many lovers of regional theater there is another equally dear tradition: the one-man theatrical production of this piece, which I saw this weekend produced by Theater Wit. Adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello (Wicked, Assassins) in 1996, the one act monologue covers Sedaris’ bases but with broader strokes; making it both more theatrical and open enough for voices other than Sedaris’ to crawl into the role of the anonymous narrator.

In this production, our narrator introduces himself right away as Mitch. He’s Mitchell Fain actually, and this is his third year telling this story under the direction of Theater Wit artistic director Jeremy Wechsler. It’s an improvisational, audience interactive production, in which Fain breaks out of character repeatedly to share personal anecdotes and connects with audience members one on one.

Fain’s Crumpet (as the elf names himself) is different from Sedaris’. He’s boozier, more jaded and older. He’s been around long enough to bring a special kind of indignation to his role as an elf. He’s also Jewish, bringing a nice new layer of irony to the already super sardonic show. Mitchell Fain is a bold actor and brings so much of himself to the stage, that even the truest David Sedaris fans will allow themselves to be seduced by his performance. As he switches back and forth between Crumpet and Mitchell, the transitions can be somewhat jarring and at times even awkward at the top of the show. But once he gets going and the asides become hotter and freer flowing, Mitchell and Crumpet flow nicely and the cohesiveness makes for something that is entirely new, and not a retelling of an old holiday favorite. An appropriate presentation of a show that is at its core about the aggravating façade of holiday traditions.

Joey Wade has created an ironically generic set for Fain to play around in, which he does in a mostly compelling way. The crew gets into the fun, at one point someone pulled the lights on Fain during an (I’m guessing) improvised Judy Garland impression. The Theater Building, which hosts the show, has a full bar in the lobby and the audience is encouraged to drink (Crumpet the Elf goes through about a shakers worth of martini in the duration of the show). It’s a festive environment, perfect for anyone who is too jaded for Tiny Tim, but not so jaded that they can’t sit through a one man retelling of a 1992 radio essay. For audiences looking for something subversive enough to stomach but not so subversive that they have to think, this is a perfectly pleasant night at the theater.

 

Rating: ★★★

Review: “Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living”

 Strong Acting Brings Out the Comedy in this One-Man Show

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ComedyChicago presents:

Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living

Performed and written by Will Clinger
directed by Kevin Theis
thru December 13th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

It is in the most desperate of times that we become desperate for our search for happiness. In these cloudy days of economic gloom, war and reality television, many cling to religion or spirituality as a guide to a better tomorrow. The title character in Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living considers himself a sort of shaman, leading the audience on a supposed path to self-fulfillment. In reality, the doctor is much more of a sham than a shaman, and his advice—played out vicariously through characters—is more of a sure-fire path to self-destruction than fulfillment. All this irony, and a very committed actor, makes this one-man show an entertaining spectacle.

dr_harlon3 The brains behind the play is Will Clinger, a veteran of the Chicago stage and screen. He is probably most known for his work as host of WILD CHICAGO, a long-running television show that aired on WTTW.

The play begins with Clinger donning the role of the over-enthusiastic self-help guru Dr. Harlon. Jokes fly fast as the doctor accidentally steps out of the spotlight and receives a call from his good friend David Hasselhoff. Meanwhile a video screen enhances the downstage action, displaying visuals that graphically depict the doctor’s terrible advice, advice that includes such nuggets as the importance of assimilation and suppressing the negative attributes of one’s personality.

After the first scene with the doctor, we never actually see the character again. Yet his advice periodically appears on the screen, serving as transitions from one vignette to the next. These vignettes showcase a variety of followers of Dr. Harlon’s advice. The motley cast of characters includes a father who will go to great lengths to get the perfect Christmas photo of his infant son, an American wine connoisseur dishing about his trip to rural France and a lounge performer who teeters between manic highs and depressing lows.

Clinger’s commitment to the characters represents a skilled comedic actor. Although his range might be narrower than other performers—some of his characters seemed to be slightly altered clones of each other—he does a convincing job of breathing life into each personality, providing them with unique points of view. And with only a matter of seconds between one scene and the next, Clinger pulls off quite the transformative feat.

dr_harlon4 The writing too is worthy of praise, though this praise is tempered by a couple glaring flaws. The play begins with a steady stream of humor with Clinger portraying Dr. Harlon, and there are some big laughs to be had at the wine connoisseur character who delivers a monologue reminiscent of David Sedaris at his best. But there are parts that drag, where the jokes are too dispersed to hold up the scene. There are also a couple of vignettes whose endings undermine the entire scene, particularly one featuring a hack talent agent who’s rehashing days gone by. I won’t give away the scene’s ending, but basically it is an unnecessary cliché that devalues an otherwise rich character.

Director Kevin Theis should be commended for setting vivid scenes when the only props available are a chair, a screen and Clinger. Still images of a landscape with subtle sounds of birds chirping and a frame of a cocktail party accompanied by murmurs and glass clinks help provide vivid, yet minimalist, environments for Clinger’s characters to live in.

Overall, Dr. Harlon’s Keys to Better Living is a comical portrayal of self-destructive self-help. At times the writing falls a little flat, but Clinger knows how to pick up the mood and get the play back on track.

 

Rating: ★★★

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