December 16, 2020

Bad Plumbing, Social Media Complicate a Marriage in “Christmas 2.0”; Passage Theatre Presents an Online Reading of Donna Hoke’s Comedy

“CHRISTMAS 2.0”: Passage Theatre presented an online reading of “Christmas 2.0.” Written by Donna Hoke (above) and directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, the romantic comedy probes the extent to which social media can jeopardize interpersonal relationships. Online contact with a former classmate endangers the protagonist’s current relationship with her husband. (Photo by kc kratt)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

This is an era defined by Apple,” observes Angela, the protagonist of Christmas 2.0. Angela’s mother, in a critique of restaurant patrons she sees absorbed by their phones throughout their meals, remarks, “What’s more fascinating than the person right in front of you?”

That conversation could point to an expedient partnership between technology and live theater. Under normal circumstances, the allure of electronic devices and social media would seem to hamper theaters’ ability to attract audiences’ attention to a live show, where they (presumably) would be fascinated by the person in front of them — on stage. However, faced with the fact that live venues have been closed because of the pandemic, a growing number of theater companies are presenting shows online.

Passage Theatre has presented a reading of Christmas 2.0. Playwright Donna Hoke’s wry but charming romantic comedy, which probes the extent to which social media and overreliance on technology can jeopardize interpersonal relationships, is an example of a play that is well suited to online performances. (The New Play Exchange’s website notes that the piece was workshopped at the 2015 Hormel Festival of New Works at Phoenix Theatre, and it won third place in the Pickering Prize for Playwriting Excellence.)

Victoria Davidjohn reads the stage directions, which establish the play’s first setting as “Jeff and Angela’s middle class living room. Jeff is busy on his phone; Angela is on her computer.” Angela (whom Autumn Hurlbert infuses with down-to-earth, mild-mannered earnestness) turns away from her screen to examine the couple’s Christmas tree, which she is concerned might be crooked.

Every actor is given the same backgrounds, which serve as the play’s scenery. The settings are the living room (in which a flat-screen TV and the Christmas tree are visible), a department store, and a restaurant. One image of the Christmas tree, which appears fairly well adorned with ornaments, is used throughout the performance. This seems to contradict dialogue in which Angela complains that she and Jeff have not spent enough time decorating for the holidays, though the incongruity is harmless.

Angela is frustrated that Jeff (portrayed by Ahmad Maksoud, with just the right mixture of caring sincerity and dispassionate deadpan) is immersed in fantasy football. This obsession monopolizes his attention at her expense. This is especially frustrating to Angela, a housewife, because Jeff’s (unspecified) work keeps him away on extended business trips.

The couple’s (unseen) daughter, Melanie, is a freshman in college, and soon will be home on winter vacation. Angela is  frustrated by the lack of Christmas spirit in the household, and hopes to restore it in time for Melanie’s visit.

Receiving a phone call from Angela, Melanie wonders if there is an emergency, because “nobody calls just spontaneously.” Still typing on his phone, Jeff retorts, “That’s dumb. Kids don’t know how to communicate.”

Although they are married, Jeff has never bought Angela a ring. (He proposed “spontaneously” one Christmas Eve, promising to buy a ring “later.”) It scarcely helps the general mood that Angela’s cat Sinbad frequently leaves messes on the floor — with which Jeff has little patience. (His threat to evict Sinbad — whose behavior often starts phone conversations in which Jeff would rather hear about Angela — is swiftly rebuffed.)

During a trip to the department store Angela runs into her former high school classmate, Kelly (who is infused with artfully overblown perkiness by Lipica Shah). The two strike up a conversation, but like Jeff, Kelly only half-listens, as she writes posts for her 3000 Facebook friends and answers a phone call. Kelly knowingly quips that the only reason she wouldn’t answer her phone is if she were dead.

Kelly does hear the part of the conversation where Angela complains that there are plumbing issues, which Jeff has made worse in his attempts to repair them. All of the faucets are reversed, and the shower “has been dripping for months.” Kelly tries to help by recommending a plumber (whom she found on Facebook, of course).

Unfortunately, the plumber is Billy, whom Angela dated before college. Angela acknowledges that the having Billy in her house would “definitely be awkward.” Billy’s marital status is conspicuously unclear. Angela starts to tell Kelly about the tensions in her marriage, but a salesperson is ready to help Kelly.

June Ballinger is Passage’s former artistic director. She also is a seasoned actor whose credits include Broadway and television. Here she makes an entertaining appearance as May, Angela’s mother. May is wry, breezy, and — somewhat stereotypically — mildly overbearing and intrusive. While Jeff and Kelly are excessively immersed in their phones, the old-fashioned May is at the other extreme; she is nonplussed when Angela plays music via an iPod rather than a radio.

The widowed May assures Angela that she is not lonely, because she has “a handyman.” May suggests that Jeff, who plans to be out of town on business, might appreciate it if Angela solved the problem of the faulty plumbing by calling for repairs. This advice motivates Angela to contact Billy (portrayed with jovial bombast by Pete Pryor). They exchange benign banter, and Billy’s mildly crude sense of humor takes Angela’s mind off of her current frustrations. Billy completes the repairs, and the two plan to meet for “tea.”

Billy has two children, though when Angela asks whether he is married he holds up a ring-less hand and cagily replies, “not at the moment.” Angela holds up her equally unadorned hand. It is an example of the type of moment that is visually enhanced by an online performance, in which audiences are able to see things up close.

Eventually the play’s dual plot points — Kelly’s social media addiction, and Angela’s eventual affair with Billy — meet at an explosive intersection. Although unseen, the cat helps to bring matters to a head, via his problematic behavior.

There is no doubt that Angela is the protagonist. She is the only character on “stage” throughout the entire show. For the majority of the scenes, the other characters take turns interacting with her, one at a time. It is not until late in the play, in a pair of scenes in which Hoke builds her disparate plot threads into a climax, that we see more than two characters together.

This crescendo — increasing the number of characters in a scene, as the simmering tension boils over — gives the play a clear shape. In addition to eliciting distinctive performances from her talented cast, director Michelle Tattenbaum carefully paces the sequence of scenes (aided by Melody Wong’s stage management), so that the audience is lulled into a steady rhythm that will be upended. 

As with Passage’s reading of Welcome to Matteson! last month, Christmas 2.0 was treated as a theatrical event. The purchase of a ticket entitled audiences to watch a livestream via Zoom on December 12, or the recording on YouTube through December 15.

We can all use more smiley faces,” Angela drily but aptly remarks, referring to their preponderance in electronic communication. As a play that succeeds as an astute satire on the cultural foibles of our digital age, as well as an amiable romantic comedy with a holiday setting, Christmas 2.0 is easy to “like.”

For information about Passage Theatre’s upcoming events, visit