In restaurant world, it's called amuse-bouche: a dish that is supposed to pack complex favors and taste into a single bite.
What playwright Matt Hoverman has done with his "Christmas Shorts," at San Jose's City Lights through Dec. 23, is created a quintet of amuse-bouche for the season. He has put together five short plays (the longest barely clocks in over 15 minutes) all set during the holidays. Structurally, there's really nothing to hold them together, but they have a tonal cohesion that fits in well with the literal translation of amuse-bouche: "mouth amuser."
Hoverman -- a well-regarded young writer whose new play "Who You See Here" is scheduled to open on Broadway next year -- wants to have fun with some of the conventions of Christmas while also making at least a few points about love, family and the glories of the season with a light touch.
So, in one play, a young couple fight an amusing battle on Christmas Eve over whether to go home for the holidays. In another, "two dudes living the dream" (they're in their 30s but still act like they're living in their college frat house) face a Christmas horror in the form of one guy's ex-girlfriend. In yet another, a couple dressed in biblical garb find themselves at a fertility clinic (in Bethlehem, Pa., of course) on Christmas Day.
There is a delightful absurdist quality to most of the situations, but they are all grounded in some reality. Anyone who has ever sat down to write Christmas cards with a significant other will recognize the truth underlying a couple's battle in "Xmas Cards." Certainly, many couples have gone through the torture of deciding whether being with the family at Christmas is really worth the agony and pain of "trips to the jail to bail out your half brother," Jell-O molds and inappropriate caroling for the neighbors ("When it's 2 a.m., it's not caroling. It's trespassing.").
Hoverman wrote his plays in 2009 and since then, the collection has become popular with smaller regional theater companies looking for something different for a holiday show. It's easy to see why. Not only does Hoverman put some bite in the humor while not going too dark, but the program is designed to be done with a small cast playing multiple roles.
For its production -- which includes a snappy set by Ron Gasparinetti and a terrific lighting design by Nick Kumamoto -- City Lights has put together a very nice cast of local actors who clearly revel in the opportunity to play some very different roles in the space of one night on the stage.
While all five performers do well, Lanky Jimmy Allan emerges as something of a standout. He brings some real poignancy to the part of a young writer discussing his holiday-themed play with his teacher (the work is called "Simon the Gay Elf"). He is very funny as one of the dudes living the dream, suggesting more than a bit of Jim Parsons in TV's "Big Bang Theory" -- which is a very good thing. And he brings goofy charm as the guy dressed as Joseph for a Nativity play and finds himself in the fertility clinic with a stranger dressed as Mary.
Jeff Newton plays most of the older male parts and his skill with understated delivery and the double take serve him as well as the teacher trying to critique "Simon the Gay Elf" and a man trying to write Christmas cards while being constantly interrupted by the wife. Morgan Voellger gets perhaps the most diverse roles, ranging from the woman who wrecks the dudes' Christmas to the Mary in the fertility clinic, and does well with each. Luke Chapman and Sara Renée Morris get a chance to shine in the opening "Going Home" and make the most of it. They are believable as a couple and show a sure touch for physical humor.
To give the set of plays a little bit of a spin, City Lights has brought in five up-and-coming directors from the Bay Area and given them each one of the plays. Diahanna Davidson, Jeffrey Lo, Jenny Hollingworth, Heather Noelle Robinson and Janice Wessner bring a sure touch and something different to their plays without disrupting the flow of the evening.
I particularly like Lo's work on "The Student." The piece with "Simon the Gay Elf" could easily go over the top, but Lo keeps it grounded and understated without losing the humor.
A couple of the plays in "Christmas Shorts" are slighter than others, more sketches than fully realized vignettes, and anyone looking for deep contemplation of the human condition will have to go elsewhere.
But at just over an hour, it is a perfect little holiday diversion -- funny, entertaining and with just enough warmth of the holidays.
Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
By Matt Hoverman
Through: Dec. 23
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Running time: 1 hour,
10 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $16.95-$39.95, www.cltc.org