Center Theater

If summer fluff has a seasonal opposite, it’s Christmas schmaltz. And if ever a play cornered the market on adorable Christmas cheer, it’s Sam and Bella Spewak’s My Three Angels, a show so sweet and wholesome that if it were a drink it would be condensed milk.

The Spewaks specialized in writing nice, clean plays with fresh, bright names: Spring Song (1934), Boy Meets Girl (1935), and the much more daring book to Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me Kate (1948). My Three Angels (1953), which became the 1955 film We’re No Angels, with Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, Basil Rathbone, and Peter Ustinov, was their attempt to write a wholesome Christmas classic–if that’s not redundant.

Surprisingly, for a play that deals wholesale in miracles, My Three Angels pulls off a tiny one of its own. Unashamedly saccharine and calculatedly heartfelt, it can still deliver the holiday goods–most of them anyway–even to the most critical Scrooge.

My Three Angels is so blatant in its contrivances that it comes off as the stuff of unpretentious wish fulfillment. Its sentimental plot bypasses the brain and makes straight for the heart, reducing the audience’s mental state to the level of children’s credulity and hopefulness, always the best soil in which to grow Christmas corn.

As make-believe goes, the Spewaks’ confection is almost nourishing. It’s Christmastide 1910, and three French Guiana convicts manage to brighten the lives of a poor Cayenne shopkeeper and his deserving family. Felix Ducotel and his adoring cipher of a wife are in straitened circumstances because stuffy, honest Felix, a dreamer who thinks himself practical, extends credit to everyone and is exploited by all. The result is cash flow like molasses. The crisis comes when Felix’s oily cousin and business sponsor, Henri Trochard, arrives in the colony hoping to turn Felix out of his shop, just as he had cheated him in France.

To worsen a bad scene, arriving with Henri is Paul, an odious whelp who’s Henri’s nephew and ward and the unworthy beloved of Marie Louise, Felix’s lovely daughter. Marie Louise has just learned that Paul threw her over for an heiress, and as these things will happen, her heart is broken almost beyond repair.

But just when the Ducotels’ problems reach a critical mass, on Christmas Eve, three unlikely angels descend–literally–from above. Devil’s Island convicts on a work-release program, they have been laboring on the roof and overhearing all the assorted crises below. Ready to rehabilitate themselves through altruism, these modern magi have learned “to live without emotion” in a “serenity” all their own, a state that allows them to become catalysts for the play’s good deeds, to put to good use the antisocial skills that put them in prison.

Joseph, an accomplished forger and smooth-talking con man, sets to work to sell the store’s stock and put Felix’s tangled ledgers in order (if necessary, by cooking the books). Jules murdered his wife in a crime of passion–but now he helps to bring the alleged lovers together (and is drawn to Mrs. Ducotel, the image of the woman he should have married). Impetuous, athletic Alfred, who killed his stepfather when the cur came between him and his true love, tries not to punch out Paul or get too involved with Marie Louise. (The no-doubt considerable horniness of these convicts is something the play delicately ignores.)

The Trochards, the play’s villains, are classically contemptible. Henri, a snob who refuses to marry his ward to a penniless shop girl and despises the noble convicts, slobbers at the prospect of ruining his cousin. Paul, a foppish, neurasthenic wimp, is more in love with himself than Marie Louise; certainly his lust for money is greater. But thanks to the convicts’ pet snake, Adolphe, the venomous Trochards get their eternal comeuppance. (Their punishment, however, is so out of proportion to their crimes that it strikes an odd note.)

Dan LaMorte’s Center Theater staging, which runs in rotating repertory with Philip Barry’s wispy Hotel Universe, is every bit as obvious as the Spewaks’ coy manipulations–and ultimately just as winning, from Rob Hamilton’s creamy tropical setting to Renee Starr Liepins’s gorgeous Edwardian costumes. The ten actors mostly manage to avoid camping up or condescending to their characters (the two exceptions are Peter DeFaria’s prissily overdone Paul and Candace Ferger’s Grand Guignol interpretation of a venal customer). If these are tried-and-true stereotypes, the actors at least make them fresher than they deserve.

R.J. Coleman brings a childlike tenderness to Felix Ducotel, a gentle chump who’d rather be fleeced than greedy, and Sheryl Nieman is elegantly devoted in the exasperatingly undeveloped role of his mate. Jessica Thebus flutters gracefully as the jilted but still adoring Marie Louise. Eamon Hunt slithers with conviction as the wretchedly materialistic Henri Trochard.

But the best work comes, as it should, from the angels. Marc Vann as Jules plays his thinking man’s con with a contagious and impish zest for exposing Trochard hypocrisy. Gus Buktenica makes Joseph clearly savor his opportunities to scam for goodness’ sake, and Leo Daignault, if not as burly as his part implies, devotes his own angelic charm to his portrayal of Alfred’s doomed attachment to Marie Louise. (The selflessness of these convicts, working overtime to find the right man for Marie Louise, strains the credulity of even make-believe.) Chuck Blumenthal is suitably striking as a Prince Charming who arrives in the nick of time, for one final miracle.