In Northlight’s “Season’s Greetings,” the Casting Beats the Script

The sprawling cast of characters in “Season’s Greetings” includes a dashing young novelist, who says his writing is “painfully witty or wittily painful—I forget which.”

That’s also an apt description of what British playwright Alan Ayckbourn was aiming for with “Season’s Greetings”—a mix of humor and pathos.

The play has plenty of both, and a wonderful ensemble does its utmost to provoke all the appropriate laughs and winces in artistic director B.J. Jones’ current production at Northlight Theatre. Unfortunately, Ayckbourn’s script is marred by shallow character development and clunky turns of plot.

As an extended dysfunctional clan gathers at an English home to celebrate Christmas, it’s hard to keep track of who’s related to whom. Northlight helpfully provides a family tree in its program, but you really shouldn’t have to consult a chart as you’re watching a play. It’s also rather hard to be believe that several children are somewhere at this family gathering and yet never appear onstage. Has any bunch of kids ever been this shy and retiring during the holidays?

Maybe Ayckbourn’s idea was to keep the children out of sight so that we could see just how childish and immature his adult characters are. These folks are largely oblivious to their own flaws and foibles, even when they’re blindingly obvious to us. When Pattie (Maggie Kettering) repeatedly asks her husband, Eddie (John Byrnes), to come upstairs and he repeatedly ignores her, you want to grab the guy and shout, “Good God, man! Just go upstairs!” “Season’s Greetings” has too many moments of similar frustration.

So what’s to like? One of Chicago’s best actors, Francis Guinan, manages to make us feel pity for his puppet-obsessed character. The delightful Rob Riley provides comic relief as a crotchety old uncle. Heidi Kettenring is frisky and sexy as the hostess, who shows a little too much interest in her sister’s new beau. If only this fine cast had something better to work with.

“Season’s Greetings” continues through Dec. 18 at Northlight Theatre. For tickets and details, see northlight.org or call 847-673-6300.