Merry XXXmas

With her comic new play, Minneapolis writer Bridget Carpenter gives new meaning to the term "Blue Christmas"

As the play begins, our hero, Brian, is discussing his admiration for Lyle Menendez, with whom he played Little League:

BRIAN: And now he's famous. I mean everyone knows who he is... I want to do something so that people know who I am. Not, obviously, to kill my parents. But I think it's important to leave something behind. To leave a legacy.

Naughty but nice: Award-winning playwright and Dirty Debutante aficionado Bridget Carpenter
Christopher Peters
Naughty but nice: Award-winning playwright and Dirty Debutante aficionado Bridget Carpenter

Brian's dreams of silver-screen fame are squelched when his acting teacher takes him aside and confesses, "Brian, you are a Very Bad Actor." But, he's been going out on casting calls for porn movies, and maybe, one day, with a little perseverance and a lot of luck...

...Or, maybe, a lot of hard work. While Carpenter was finishing this play, the New Yorker published an essay by Susan Faludi called "Waiting for Wood." Pornography, said Faludi, was one of the only industries in the country where women are in charge, traditionally earning 100 to 150 times more than men for a shoot (although this trend has been changing a bit in recent years with the rise of the male porn "auteur"). Men typically work as grunts whose success and/or failure depends entirely on their ability to "get wood."

"Waiting for Wood" is also the title of the first act of Mr. Xmas. (Carpenter laughs, "I loved the title. I blatantly stole it.") When Brian meets porn casting agent John Product, Product explains the business:

I see hundreds of pumped-up porn wannabes every week. They take off their clothes. Then they get in front of the camera, and they can't perform. No one cares how you look. With women, it matters how you look. With men, it matters how you fuck. Do you understand? This business is not about appearance. It is about cocksmanship.

And when you're talking about cocksmanship, who comes to mind but Santa Claus? Christmas is another American institution built on marketing and unusual celebrity. The action of the play is continually interrupted by musical breaks of Christmas carols (performed by a chorus of XXXmas dancers). There's "Jingle Bells," "The Little Drummer Boy," "Blue Christmas," and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." It's all terribly, terribly naughty.

"I have to confess something right off the bat," Carpenter says. "I love Christmas music. I collect Christmas music. I love the Stevie Wonder Christmas, John Mellencamp Christmas, Patti LaBelle Christmas. I listen to the Elvis Christmas album all year round. I love it all."

Director Casey Stangl, who started her artistic life as a dancer, then became choreographer, has staged the opening "Jingle Bells" number as a nine-man marching and saluting, Brady Bunch Variety Hour, danceline, showbiz, jazz-hands, O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A hunk of Americana. (At rehearsal, Stangl instructs, "OK, on 'One-horse open sleigh,' hold your hands like Evita. 'Don't cry for me, Argentina.' That's it.")

Stangl promises an S&M sleigh ride, where the XXXmas dancers will be dressed all "leathery," Santa is mean, and the reindeer are afraid--but kind of like it. The musical numbers, says Stangl, serve as they would in a Brecht play. "They do not advance the plot," she explains. "The people performing the numbers are not the characters in the play. The songs are a moment of irony, distancing the audience, setting and changing the mood."

The juxtaposition of pornography and Santa makes good copy, to be sure, but the clash between the two elements also makes good theater. It is precisely Carpenter's understanding of the inherently theatrical nature of this good loud bang which makes her an interesting playwright, one who writes about the allure of fame in a medium which nearly guarantees she won't have any. (That, and the rare ability to write heavily conceptual plays about, say, manhood, all the while pulling off any number of cock jokes.) This juxtaposition, too, is quintessentially Bridget Carpenter. Any woman who counts as her favorite movies North by Northwest and Fame, Truly, Madly, Deeply and The Craft, will probably also butt triple-X against Xmas.

When people talk about why they're attracted to Carpenter's writing, it often becomes a conversation about why they like Carpenter herself. Former Playwrights' Center Lab director (and Mr. Xmas cast member) Elissa Adams says, "What I love about Bridget's writing is, it is lively and curious and fearless and funny, much like Bridget herself, come to think of it.... And, God bless her, she can land a joke."

It's hard to resist a personality when there's so much of it to like. Parts of her are elegant: Carpenter makes small-edition books, "Paper, binding, letterpress, the works." Parts are less than elegant: She describes the contents of her fridge as, "Vodka, a bottle of perfume I always forget to use since it is in the refrigerator but I read in Cosmo once that it's a good place to keep perfume, Chicken by George, and a lone bottle of Rolling Rock." She counts among her pleasures the works of Sharon Olds and Charles Baxter, kickboxing, and swing dancing. She loves (loves, loves) the Miss America Pageant. ("I must add that my cousin Anna Carpenter was the 1998 Miss Nevada, and to my mind, she was robbed of her rightful place in the top 10 finalists. Robbed.")

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