God knows what Andy (Jonathon Breeden) is thinking when he decides to take his fiance, Randi (Sophie Areno), home for the holidays. His father (John Bolen), an embittered former baseball player, is an intolerant religious conservative and budding alcoholic. His loving mother (Karen Chapin) looks like June Cleaver, is losing her hearing, and quietly enables her husband's hateful behavior. Andy's gentle younger brother, Mickey (Jacob Hulthage), is developmentally disabled with a mental age of three. Making matters worse, Randi's an atheist, and her lack of religious faith ignites a firestorm of questions about the existence of God that devolves into a screaming free-for-all minutes after she enters her future in-laws' house.

What sets this dysfunctional family Christmas story apart from others is that just as the put-upon couple decide to leave for a hotel, Mickey suddenly begins talking, urging his family to stop their rancor because he has a "debt to settle" and needs to tell them something. That's a cliffhanger guaranteed to keep you talking through intermission, but when you settle back into your seat 15 minutes later, it won't be long before you realize that's basically it for the evening. Not only will you not receive an accounting of the "debt" that needs to be settled, but there's also never an explanation of who—or what—Mickey is "possessed" by.

In the hands of a playwright who knows what he's doing—Ionesco or Beckett, for example—there's nothing better than deliberate ambiguity to get brains percolating. In the less capable hands of someone like Greetings playwright Tom Dudzick, it's called writing yourself into a corner. Defiantly shrugging off rationale, plot or character development in favor of treacly New Age bromides about peace, love and understanding, Dudzick strands the Vanguard's able cast and director Paulette Kendall in a relentlessly dead-end second act that completely deflates the considerable expectations he sets up in Act One. Damn shame, too, since Kendall's direction is brightly inventive and her ensemble talented and attractive. Hulthage's Mickey merits special note: it's the showiest role, but the actor underplays it with a sensitivity that makes his switches between the two personalities both remarkable and chilling. In the end, such hard work—apparent throughout the cast—is worthy of a better script than the stupid one they're stuck with.

Greetings at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699-A. S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-8007. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Dec. 22. $5-$15.


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