Despite top talent like Michael Winters (left) and Ian Bell, Seattle Rep's reboot of Inspecting Carol falls flat.

With its theater-insider humor and hot-button references to Robert Mapplethorpe, the National Endowment for the Arts, multiculturalism, and the day’s high-tech gadgetry of pagers, beepers and clunky portable computers, Seattle Rep’s homegrown holiday show Inspecting Carol no doubt was a hoot when it debuted in 1991.

As the story goes, the play was conceived when Seattle Rep’s former artistic director Daniel Sullivan was sitting on a panel for the NEA and got word that another theater director had attempted to bribe an NEA inspector. Yikes. But the image of that real-life melodrama struck Sullivan as funny and lodged in his imagination. He began to envision a holiday skit that crossed Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector with that old workhorse A Christmas Carol. His actors stepped in to collaborate and Sullivan’s skit blossomed into the full-length play Inspecting Carol, a farcical look at a cash-strapped theater company desperate to impress a National Endowment for the Arts inspector and collect their grant money.

Cash-strapped theater company? That’s certainly a timely topic for 2012. Easy to see why the Rep would pull Inspecting Carol out of mothballs and give it a shake. But jokes that may have been spot-on in the early ’90s have long since lost their relevance—and some were likely dicey to start with. The quips about multicultural hiring and the patronizing treatment of the play-within-a-play’s sole black actor are downright cringe-worthy. In that role, Reginald Andre Jackson handles the cavalier treatment and absurd costume requirements gamely and with just the right tinge of disbelief. Others in the cast—studded with top local talent, including Gretchen Krich, Ian Bell, and Burton Curtis—tend to wring the material of any subtlety by upping the emotion from start to finish: shouting, grimacing, flinging themselves about.

There’s some fun slapstick in the final act as the whole rickety stage set begins to fall apart—along with the illusions of the cast. Even so, the play remains a bit of a slog. Maybe it’s time for the Rep to put this holiday tradition to rest.

Inspecting Carol
Thru Dec 23, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $15–$80