By Scott Harrah
Philadelphia Inquirer classical-music critic David Patrick Stearns who worked as the theater critic for USA Today for 17 years never planned on being a journalist or a playwright. Stearns, whose dark comic farce “Addicted to Christmas” opens July 16 at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, originally wanted to be a singer.
As an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, Stearns studied music history and yearned to sing opera. His role model was opera soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. “She was a smart singer because she understood what she was singing the words and the meaning behind them,” said Stearns.
However, when a teacher sat him down in a studio and was rather blunt about his vocal talents, he soon realized that he might have to pursue a different career. “She said, ‘You’ve been working really hard but you don’t have it, and you never will,” Stearns said, recalling that life-changing day.
He walked over to the office of the chairman of the university’s music department. “He had his door open and I went in said to him, ‘I was just told that I don’t have a future here, so what should I do with my life?’ ” The chairman asked Stearns what came easily to him. “I said, ‘writing.’ And he said, ‘Be a music critic.’ ”
He quickly switched his major to journalism. After graduating, Stearns went to work at the now-defunct Muncie Star in Muncie, IN as a police reporter, but covering crimes was hardly his true passion. He soon started reviewing classical music when he wasn’t covering the police beat. He moved on to the Rochester, NY Times-Union, where he became their classical music critic, then got a huge break when he landed a long-term job at USA Today as a theater critic he always loved the theater when the nationwide paper was just a start-up. A few years ago, he decided to leave USA Today when the newspaper started to cut back on its fine arts coverage. He took a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer as their classical music critic. “A lot of people thought I was crazy [to leave USA Today] but it seemed the right thing to do,” he said.
Over the years, Stearns has been writing numerous plays when he has not been busy working for newspapers because, as he explained, “At a certain point, journalism isn’t enough. I didn’t really choose [playwriting], but it seemed the most viable medium for me, because as a theater critic, I was seeing three or four plays a week.”
Sitting at a Chelsea diner on a hot July afternoon, the bubbly, fair-haired Stearns explained the concept of his latest work, “Addicted to Christmas.” The play, set in New York, is about Jody, Henry, Peter and Al, friends that celebrate Christmas monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily. The absurdist plot contains everything from the staging of vigilante attacks in the name of Currier and Ives to avenging Santa Claus bashings. They keep Christmas decorations up year-round and use green spray paint to touch up their wilting tree. They give each other the same presents each time they celebrate Christmas, and constantly play a Yule Log video that actually talks back to them and proselytizes like the burning bush on Mount Sinai with biblical omnipotence.
Stearns said the idea for the play partially came from an amusing habit he once had. “When I was a bit younger and more beholden to my past, I used to leave my Christmas decorations up well after Christmas because I was waiting not for Christmas but that Christmas feeling to arrive,” he said. “Around Easter, friends would say, ‘Isn’t it time to take down your tree?’ ”
The characters in “Addicted to Christmas” celebrate the holiday repeatedly, keeping up tattered decorations that make the set look like what Stearns described as an “arctic flophouse.” Suffice it to say most of the characters are depressed and suicidal.
“The whole idea is that they’ve offed themselves on Christmas Eve and it’s a huge crime against nature,” Stearns said. “Christmas is supposed to be about rebirth. Suicide is basically putting yourself in the God seat and saying ‘I’m assuming control.’”
Stearns certainly understands the value of life. He talked about living in New York from 1988 to 2000 and why this time period was particularly hard for him. “Those were the worst years of the AIDS crisis and I lost my first partner,” he said. “And all the people that I knew in the ’80s that I thought would be friends for life they all went away. A lot of what the play is about is wanting to bring my dead friends back to life.”
The characters in his play are fonder of the Yuletide holiday than anyone he’s ever known, himself included. “I’m not a Christmas freak, but there’s a part of me that thinks one day I’ll have a good one,” he said. “With an Irish Catholic family and all the dysfunction that goes on, chances of a good Christmas are slim.”
Part of the play’s humor satirizes the Catholic faith. In one scene, the main character, Jody, goes off on a hilarious screaming tirade at a priest during confession. This is something Stearnswho said he was a “secret wild kid”always wanted to do as a child. “Being a good Catholic boy, I had to confess everything, and the priests knew things my parents didn’t know and the priests would scream at me,” he said.
Other scenes from of the play are also semi-autobiographical and based on people and events from Stearns’s own life. One of the characters, Henry, jumps off the Staten Island ferry much like the late monologist and playwright Spalding Gray did in 2004. “I was friends with Spalding Gray,” Stearns said. “I knew him professionally and had this rapport with him partially because Spalding Gray had some serious boundary issues. He was sort of like making friends with a rather friendly puppy. The main male character is based on him the kind of puppy quality Spalding had.”
“Addicted to Christmas” is a limited engagement and is only being performed on the following dates: Monday, July 16 at 6 p.m., Sunday, July 22 at 2 p.m., Saturday July 28 at 6 p.m. and Friday, August 3 at 4 p.m. “The reason why there are so many weird times is this is a showcase and we want to attract theater industry people and casual theatergoers,” Stearns said.
He is not concerned about what any critics might say about the play, however. “I don’t think anybody has a vendetta against me,” he said, referring to his many years of writing theater reviews. “Ridicule is something I hope I never did. Maybe I lapsed a few times. When you see something like ‘Carrie: The Musical,’ it’s a little hard not to.”
His years working as a journalist in Philadelphia have helped him develop a thick skin, so he is prepared for any type of response from audiences and critics. “I don’t think there’s anything the critics could give me that the years at the Philadelphia Inquirer haven’t given me in triplicate.”
“Addicted to Christmas” is a selection of the 8th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival. Performances are Monday, July 16 through Friday, August 3. Where Eagles Dare Theatre, 347 W 36th Street. Tickets $18. Call 212-868-4444 or purchase online at www.smarttix.com.