The Long Christmas Ride Home

Paula Vogel's play is not exactly a sequel to Thornton Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner, but it's a lineal descendant. Wilder, beneath his folksy exterior, was a tough, ruthless writer and an innovator whose time-telescoping and other nonrealistic techniques still influence avant-garde theatre. Vogel uses those techniques to a very different end.

In The Long Christmas Dinner, Wilder compressed 90 years in the life of a family into a single Christmas dinner. Vogel stretches time instead, showing how a single traumatic Christmas -- they don't even get dinner -- continues to exact its price 30 years later. Jewish Dad (Shaun Duke) is unfaithful, and Catholic Mom (Mary Manofsky) is riddled with resentment. They bundle up their three children -- Rebecca, Stephen, and Claire -- to drive to Grandma's house for Christmas.

In Act 1, the children are effectively played by expressionist Bunraku-style puppets, manipulated by visible onstage puppeteers dressed in black. Grandma (Douglas Lowery) is rather a ditz, while Grandpa (also Lowery) loathes Jewish Dad. Soon everybody is squabbling, Grandpa calls Dad a kike, Dad calls mama's boy Stephen a sissy, and all hell breaks loose on the drive home, scarring the kids for life.

In Act 2 the puppeteer-actors shed their black jumpsuits to emerge as grownup counterparts of the kids. Rebecca (Luka Lyman) is, like her dad, unfaithful and is kicked out by her lover. Stephen (Jeff Kerr McGivney) has predictably grown up gay, and he too is dumped by his lover, with hideous consequences. And Claire, no longer Dad's little blond princess, emerges as a lesbian, who ardently seduces other blond princesses. To say any more would spoil the play's magic.

It's an extraordinary production, in which the highly nonrealistic puppets (designed by Ellen Mattesi) are as touching as the terrific live actors, and director Stuart Rogers ably blends them all into a strange, moving, satisfying whole. This ain't your father's puppet show.

Presented by and at Theatre Tribe, 5257 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m. Mar. 22-Apr. 28. (866) 811-4111.