Dysfunction With a Twist 

Christmas with "Mommie Dearest" is more fun than it sounds.

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With all the cross-dressing and golden-age-of-Hollywood celebrity send-ups, it's tempting to call the Richmond Triangle Players production of "Christmas With the Crawfords" campy. But resist. The show sits atop a pile of dirt and dirty laundry so historically juicy that the right word for the show is trashy — in the best possible way.

The audience is treated to an hour in Joan Crawford's drawing room on Christmas Eve culminating in a disastrous radio interview that Joan had hoped would reinvigorate her flagging career. Meanwhile, her neighbor, Gary Cooper, is having a Christmas party that brings a parade of female celebrities — mostly played in drag by male actors — wandering into Joan's place looking for Cooper's home. They usually stay long enough for a drink and a song.

In real life, Joan's oldest adopted daughter, Christina, wrote the tell-all "Mommie Dearest" about her mother's abuse and alcoholism, famously relaying the story of a fit that Joan pitched when she discovered her clothes were stored on wire hangers. The book was later turned into a movie that made the '40s megastar, already known for being difficult on the set, an even riper target for caricature after her bizarre home life was exposed.

The play takes the grim history suggested in the book and hoses it down with enough sequins and martinis to take the edge off. It would be sad if it weren't so over-the-top.

Eric Fletcher plays Joan and struts through her monumental self-absorption with 110 percent commitment, while Tommy Pruit plays Christina, who, as the cheeky future memoirist, scribbles it all down in a notebook she hides in her garter.

The whole cast wears cheekbone-enhancing rouge like war paint, and although the singing might be a little wobbly on occasion, the actors turn in such strong performances overall it seems almost unfair to call people out. Nevertheless, it must be said that Fletcher (as Crawford) and Jacquelynn "Jaci" Camden (who plays both Bette Davis and Judy Garland) do exceptional jobs, adding surprises you don't get from simple impersonations. Frank Alfano Jr. does a deliciously deranged Gloria Swanson, too.

The show might not be everyone's idea of seasonal entertainment, but the holidays have a way of making people feel the effects of family dysfunction a little more acutely. This family is so messed up, it might make laughing about your own a little easier. S

The Richmond Triangle Players' production of "Christmas With the Crawfords" runs through Dec. 9 at Fieldens Cabaret Theatre. Tickets are $16-$20. Call 346-8113 for details.

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