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Stage Review

Tackiness is a gift in fun ‘Christmas Belles’

Christmas Belles From left: Barbara Douglas, Heather Peterson, and Carrie Ann Quinn play the Futrelle sisters of Fayro, Texas, who stage a Christmas pageant. (Greg Maraio)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / December 10, 2009

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Christmas plays are not unlike the gifts we find under the tree on Dec. 25. They come in all shapes, sizes, and styles.

If “Christmas Belles’’ were a gift, it would be a necktie so loud and garish that you’d be tempted to discard it the moment you unwrapped it.

But bit by bit, almost against your will, you’d start to develop a sneaking affection for it, and before you knew it you’d have the damn thing around your neck.

There’s a boisterous, corn pone charm to “Christmas Belles’’ that mostly - not always - carries it past its ramshackle structure and the hit-or-miss quality of its one-liners. It helps that director Greg Maraio establishes and maintains a hectic pace in the Boston premiere of this deliberately tacky comedy, a coproduction by Phoenix Theatre Artists and Company One. (Maraio, the artistic director of Phoenix Theatre Artists, does triple duty with “Christmas Belles,’’ not only directing the production but also designing the vivid costumes and lending a hand with the equally colorful sets.)

All three authors of “Belles’’ - Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten - are described in publicity materials as having been “born and raised in the pre-Wal-Mart South.’’ Of equal or greater pertinence, perhaps, is the fact that all three have written extensively for television. “Belles,’’ which is set in the small town of Fayro, Texas, unfolds in sitcom rhythms - setup, joke, setup, joke - and its characters are sketched in broad, cartoonish strokes.

At the center of the action are the three Futrelle sisters, or, as they are bitingly described by a snobbish rival, “the fertile, the flirt, and the felon.’’ That would be Frankie (Barbara Douglass), who already has raised twin children but is pregnant (and overdue) with another pair of twins; Honey Raye (Heather Peterson), who has something in common with Will Rogers, namely, she never met a man she didn’t like; and Twink (Carrie Ann Quinn), just released from jail after setting her ex-boyfriend’s NASCAR memorabilia afire, accidentally triggering a conflagration that devoured half a trailer park. Yet the town sheriff (Terrence P. Haddad, in a deft performance) seems more interested in wooing Twink than incarcerating her.

That would seem like quite enough drama for Christmas Eve, but Honey Raye is under a lot of additional pressure as the new director of the annual Christmas program at the Tabernacle of the Lamb Church. (A sign at the church cheerfully greets visitors with: “Always remember, here at the Tabernacle of the Lamb Jesus loves almost everyone!’’) Furious at being bumped from the position she held for 27 years, former director Geneva Musgrave (amusingly played by Maureen Adduci in Dame Edna-style red glasses) seethes and plots her return to power. Honey Raye grandly envisions an audience-wowing triumph over a competing church production. “I want to leave those First Baptists in the dust,’’ she says fervently. Now there’s the Christmas spirit!

Her ingenuous and slightly dim niece, G.J. Dubberly (Kara Manson), also sees big things for Honey Raye’s directorial debut, which will be telecast on the local public-access station. “I’ll bet they’ll show it every year, like ‘White Christmas’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ ’’ predicts G.J.

It probably goes without saying that complications ensue and the Christmas program is soon lurching toward disaster. Food poisoning decimates the program’s cast, opening up key roles for avowed Futrelle enemy Patsy Price (Mary Niederkorn) and for Raynerd Chisum (Rory Kulz), a Forrest Gump-like character who hitherto has not been seen without his red wagon. Frankie’s husband, Dub, is supposed to play Santa Claus, but he is suffering from kidney stones (as Dub, Dave Sanfacon makes his predicament excruciating and funny at the same time).

Meanwhile, Frankie’s friend Rhonda (Jackie Davis) is really getting under the skin of the other Futrelle sisters with her flamboyant ways. Twink’s former boyfriend has mysteriously disappeared, and suspicion is focused on her. Along the way, a longtime family secret of the Futrelles is revealed.

It’s all about as subtle as a cream pie in the kisser, and it must be said that the cast’s Southern accents are of variable quality. But their energy never flags, and there is an overall buoyancy and a good-hearted spirit to the proceedings that is hard to resist, try though you might.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

CHRISTMAS BELLES

Play by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten

Directed by: Greg Maraio. Sets, Maraio and Jared Fennelly. Costumes, Maraio. Lights, Kirsten Opstad. Presented by Phoenix Theatre Artists and Company One.

At: Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, through Dec. 19. Tickets: $25. 866-811-4111,

www.companyone.org

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