Don't bring the kiddies to "Inspecting Carol," the current production at Anchorage Community Theatre. Yes, this sharp-eyed satire of theater and art has the Dickens tale as its underpinnings. But "Inspecting Carol" is about Scrooge and Tiny Tim about as much as "Blazing Saddles" is about the American West -- and is just as funny.
Any production of "Inspecting Carol" rises and falls on the strength of its Zorah, the artistic director of a Midwest regional theater. Keeping the company afloat for a decade has meant substituting a life in the theater for any other life at all. Now Zorah's 24-7 devotion will come to naught if the cash-strapped ensemble can't prove its worthiness for a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
Annia Wyndham chose a non-antic performance, and it resonates. Her Zorah is a no-nonsense taskmistress whose perpetual exhaustion barely masks a simmering anger. Originally she wanted to "change" audiences through theater. Now she just hopes that the annual production of "A Christmas Carol" will bring in enough operating funds to keep the lights on.
Informed that an NEA inspector will observe the production, Zorah will do what it takes -- from kowtowing to seduction -- to get funded once more.
Trouble is, the guy to whom she and the other ensemble members defer isn't the inspector. He's an aspiring actor named Wayne (Carl Bright) who stumbles in at just the right/wrong moment.
Bright moves easily from clueless wannabe to sadistic virtual director.
His eyes gleam as he moves the others around like chess pieces. With neurotic company member Larry (Bill McAllister), Wayne rewrites the old holiday chestnut to include themes such as abortion rights, colonialism and Tiny Tim's sexuality.
Like a family of adolescents chafing at spending Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa again, the other members of the ensemble bicker and whine and occasionally rebel. Each represents a different theater type: the actor fixated on "process," the British (in theory) vocal coach, the spoiled child performer. It's not necessary to know theater to enjoy these very funny performances. But if you've done any acting you'll find yourself snorting a lot.
As Walter, the Hispanic guy hired to add "multiculturalism" - this is 1995 Omaha, Neb., -- Angel Perez represents us, the viewers: What is going on here? Can a company really consider itself "artistic" if all it does is pander to audiences and cross items off the NEA checklist? A true drama queen, Walter protests in a delightfully snitty way but he can't overcome the must-make-money mandate.
His role is rewritten faster than he can learn it, leaving him mostly unable to perform.
Insert your own life-is-like-that joke here.
Former Daily News feature writer Donna Freedman writes a personal finance column for MSN Money and blogs at donnafreedman.com.