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Who in the world gives a gallon of semi-gloss as a Christmas gift? From the outset, it's a surreal existence in Sweetlove Productions' so-called "seasonal retail story" F$$$ the Holidays, produced in partnership with the Ringwald and directed by Joe Plambeck. This one-act late-night production, written by Marke Sobolewski and Cara Trautman, is an unlikely tale of rival paint stores and their respective offbeat employees; the small story is a good fit for the short running time and leaves room for comedic character development and hilarious moments.

Trautman plays Kirsten, a frontrunner in the rat race who manages one franchise of a paint conglomerate; Sobolewski's Jeremy is the heir to his father's small-town family paint store. Their conflict plays on themes of corporate versus small business and new- versus old-school marketing, but mostly the two seem to revile each other because one lives to sell paint and the other ought to. Christmas approaches at each location, but the stores themselves don't appear to be jeopardized or locked in any do-or-die competition; the attention in this show is on the personal and interpersonal, not on holiday shoppers or the bottom line.

Kirsten and Jeremy each has a sidekick-confidante-millstone (i.e., "employee"), who, instead of being enemies, coordinate cigarette breaks for a couple of riotous tangent scenes. As the aging local-store lifer Eleanor, Melissa Beckwith swirls her character's elderly disapproval with gruffly maternal instincts and a surprising willingness to expand her narrow mind. But it's Joe Hingelberg who has the most fun with his young ne'er-do-well, Andy, a stoner damaged by dead-mom issues who clings to a childlike fervor for sweetness, simplicity, and the treacly Christmas songs that accompany them. All four characters are weird, but organically so: their relationships have room to grow, shift, and deepen, and the actors embrace the opportunities presented them.

Just as the play barely expands beyond the scope of professional life, the set is correspondingly unadorned; a rotating display of paint cans and small checkout counter/work station cleverly double as both stores. Plambeck's sound and lighting design give each locale — and in some cases each scene — a distinct feel, avoiding the floating-in-space awkwardness presented by a bare stage. The space and set can't fully escape that borrowed feeling from the shadow of the Ringwald's current Who Wants Cake? mainstage show, but the few elements in place meet the needs of this production quite soundly.

The world of F$$$ the Holidays does hover somewhere outside reality, if for no other reason that not one single customer graces either store, despite the purported Christmas rush. (Actual embattled retail professionals would laugh . . . and/or cry.) Yet the play is a shockingly comfortable portrayal of only slightly skewed characters; the largely understated writing lands a few big punchlines, but most of the laughs come from the players as Kirsten and Jeremy figure out themselves and all four figure out each other. The production isn't intended to be laugh-a-minute, but instead unfurls a fine little blossom of a story while it distracts with generously funny character development.


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