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HAPPYTIME XMAS

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The greedy season provides the perfect backdrop for Justin Tanner's hilarious portrait of a full-time waitress and single mom pushed too far by her selfish, lazy, live-in family. In this most uncommon seasonal play, the protagonist wins her life back not by discovering the spirit of giving or the preciousness of family or even by "putting the Christ back in Christmas" (a notion Tanner explores and then discards). No, Hazie Kinn has given all she can. It's checkout time at the inn.

We join Hazie (Ellen Ratner) at her modest tract house in Salinas, Calif., with the holiday spirit whipping her family into a covetous frenzy. Her stepson, Drew (Aaron R. Hill), and his pregnant wife, Candy (Melissa Courter), seize the occasion to milk Mom for an extension on their lease, which grants them free rent, food, and sympathy. Hazie's youngest, Dottie (Heather Pauley), a recently "saved" recovering bulimic, wants nothing for Christmas but constant, unconditional, loving attention—which Hazie, raised by a hypercritical mother, is ill-equipped to provide. In cahoots with her mother, Hazie's drunkard ex-husband (James Henriksen) shows up in a Santa suit looking to latch back on now that Hazie has paid off the house. Hazie's only ally is fellow waitress and sole paying roommate Rhonda (Kim Chase), who, to the extreme dismay of Hazie's family, encourages her to begin looking out for herself.

Writer/director Tanner does an excellent job creating the emotional chaos of the Kinn household, battering his heroine with everything from Dottie's high-pitched appeals to Lillian's nasty, ego-shattering remarks to Drew's barefaced hostility. Happily, Hazie's no angel herself. Tanner's plotting is clever (a shot on Wheel of Fortune provides the impetus for change), and his dialogue is wickedly funny. Dynamic staging adds to the tension, as characters who seem not above coming to blows vie for control of the pleasingly mediocre living room (design by Henriksen).

Ratner leads a strong cast with her convincing portrayal of Hazie. Pauley is ideal as melodramatic Dottie and has some funny moments with Jeff DiDomenico as her choirboy beau. Hill and Courter are effective as the couple who'll do anything not to work. Chase's Rhonda is a grounding force. And Sandra Kinder is wonderful as passive-aggressive Lillian, getting the maximum poison out of deadpan lines like, "Well, this is nice."

"Happytime Xmas," presented by Birdman Productions at Third Stage, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Dec. 8-Jan. 26. $15. (818) 842-4755.

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