It’s a special thrill to write a sentence that may never have been written or spoken before, so here goes: The best part was “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
Hard to believe, right? I’m referring to Brave New Workshop’s “The Polarizing Express: Dysfunction Junction,” in which a modernized, fluid take on that infernal carol is an undisputed highlight. Coming at the close of the scripted performance (there’s an improv set afterward), it features the cast subbing out lords-a-leaping and swans-a-swimming for more immediate concerns, such as a naggy Alexa, parental control of thermostats and a Super Bowl line that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. What I will say is that this is the only version of “12 Days” I have ever wanted to hear again.
Loosely organized around the “Express” concept of a conductor (Ryan Nelson) who periodically announces the holiday tropes on which the sketches are based (family conflicts, the perils of gift giving and the like), “Polarizing Express” is a diverting enough evening that never dips too low but also doesn’t hit many of the highs of hilarity you’d hope for in this sort of performance. A reason for that occurred to me when a cast member described the show as “satire” and I realized “Polarizing Express” is mostly missing the insight and the high stakes that term implies. Only in a clever riff on the idea of people repeatedly regifting the same meaningless presents do we get a flash of something that is real and true: that some gifting situations feel pointless and rote.
The BNW performers do come up with new spins on some of the usual everybody-hates-fruitcake truisms, particularly in a short bit where a granny (devilish Taj Ruler) reveals to us she is savvier about her smartphone than her condescending family gives her credit for. Ruler’s “tribute to her least favorite holiday movie” is also a snappy little blackout bit (spoiler: It’s the stalker-ish “Love Actually”). And the cast gives oomph to even the most familiar material, as when Lauren Anderson’s randy energy freshens the concept of a mom with a rigid plan for Christmas revels and a Paula Deen-ish type who presides over a sex shop.
Other sketches, such as a couple of spins on the Grinch, fall flat, and I guess I missed the memo that mentions of meth are automatically hilarious. The holiday show returns to the meth well at least once too often, but, fortunately, “12 Days” is there at the end, to guide “Polarizing Express” safely into the station.