Harry Kondoleon's Christmas on Mars is about looking for redemption in the wrong places, not outer space or even Christmas per se. Directed by Jamie Warrow, this Who Wants Cake? production pins its hopes on moving forward at the expense of the past. Can one baby save four people? In the world of this comedy, probably not.
Audrey (Warrow) works at a casting agency, where she met charming model boyfriend Bruno (Jon Ager); at the play's start, they're scoping out an empty Manhattan apartment (set design by Warrow). Marriage and children aren't necessarily on their radar, until he proposes and she reveals that she's pregnant. Yet even as they plan for their future, it's their pasts that keep dogging them; their respective baggage takes human form, that of Bruno's desperate roommate, Nissim (Joel Mitchell), and Audrey's wealthy mother, Ingrid (Leah Smith). Nissim holds forth about his ten years living with Bruno in an incredible series of paranoid monologues; Mitchell is a churning font of self-indulgent stories about sad childhoods and pity-based friendship, fairly sweating out his codependent need for Bruno. Audrey's naked distaste and distrust for her mother is explained by Ingrid's pathetic story of regrettable, irrevocable decisions and inability to resist male attention. When fast friends Ingrid and Nissim learn about the baby, they use the news to wrangle another chance with the person bent on cutting them out.
The second act zooms forward to Christmas Eve, with Audrey's pregnancy now at full term. The few additions to the set clearly indicate everyone's singular focus on the child; while repentant Ingrid and increasingly demonstrative Nissim strive to make the apartment feel like a nurturing familial environment, Bruno believes outside influences are marring his relationship with Audrey and attempts to change the dynamic. Warrow flips a switch in her cold and guarded character, but their knock-down, drag-out argument tends to snag and stall; in general, the production is much stronger in monologue than in dialogue. What ultimately happens to Audrey and Bruno feels far less interesting than the decisions of Ingrid and Nissim, as the stylized comic performances and characters of Smith and Mitchell give them more freedom than the infringed-upon duo of Warrow and Ager.
Warrow's fast-flowing staging is game for the challenge of empty space; furthermore, her properties design includes an impressive Christmas haul. Lights by Joe Plambeck have little room for flair in a two-act play whose each act is one long scene in real time. Vince Kelley's costumes are at their best in Nissim, first out of his element in a uniform and then maybe a little too free to dress as he pleases. Harry Wetzel's sound design features an eclectic blend that evades definition, pairing decades-old pop songs with novelty Christmas tunes. The overall effect is a concept as eclectic as the quartet of characters adrift in their various ways.
This Christmas on Mars can be a tough nut to crack, a sometimes real-feeling, sometimes histrionic story that, at its base, concerns people who believe that a baby will repair their brokenness. It has plenty of appeal for viewers seeking a holiday-adjacent story of family dysfunction, with a twisting plot and unique assemblage of characters; with respect to its comedy, the commanding and hilarious performance of Mitchell alone is worth the price of admission. The production does push the funny/strange ratio near its breaking point, but its skilled cast and thought-inspiring subject matter make this alternate-universe Christmas play worth its while.