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Theater review

People love seeing a wrecking ball smash into a skyscraper. On a smaller scale, you can get the same thrill of destruction when live theater goes spectacularly awry.

As an ill-fated staging of “A Christmas Carol” tucked into Seattle Repertory Theatre’s holiday farce “Inspecting Carol” goes kerflooey, the laughs multiply. Forgotten dialogue, wayward scenery, rebellious costumes, general mayhem, as the biggest holiday chestnut of them crashes and burns? What a hoot!

If the buildup to that Act 2 debacle was half as funny as the show’s last 30 minutes or so, this new mounting of “Inspecting Carol,” a Rep-originated 1991 romp, would be almost dangerously hilarious.

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Instead you must settle for the sporadic amusements, but also longueurs, in Jerry Manning’s unevenly paced staging of this antic comedy en route to that grand meltdown.

Scripted by ex-Rep artistic director Daniel Sullivan and members of the Rep’s much-missed core acting company of the early ’90s, “Inspecting Carol” has become (ironically and by design) a dandy, in-joke regional theater alternative to the workhorse Dickens fable.

In the spirit of “Noises Off” and “Waiting for Guffman,” “Carol” knowingly mocks the touchy egos, money woes, bad backstage romances, dashed aspirations and personality quirks of stressed souls who are throwing together the 12th annual version of “A Christmas Carol” at the Soapbox Playhouse. The latter is a nonprofit regional theater in financial trouble, and desperate need of a bailout. (Sound familiar?)

The characters here are shrewdly and affectionately drawn theatrical types — a grandiose but wrung-out artistic director (played by Gretchen Krich); a dotty, intrepid older acting couple (endearing Kimberly King and Michael Winters); a wise-gal stage manager (Peggy Gannon); a panicky number-cruncher (Burton Curtis).

Sullivan raised the ante with a conceit lifted from Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy “The Inspector General.” Soapbox Playhouse’s last hope is to impress a visiting National Endowment for the Arts evaluator, and win a lifesaving federal grant. But they somehow (in defiance of all reason) mistake a doltish, stage-struck stranger (Stephen Hando) for the real “inspector,” with calamitous consequences.

“Inspecting Carol” is now a holiday staple nationwide (this year it’s on the boards in Kansas City, Phoenix and Asheville, N.C., and elsewhere). But this is the first Rep revival since the theater’s crisper, more cohesive staging (with most of the original cast) in 2001.

The current production doesn’t make clear enough that the action takes place two decades ago. Doing so would make the protests of a militant actor (Ian Bell) against U.S. involvement in Central America, the use of a clunky early laptop, and a crack about an NEA flap over Robert Mapplethorpe’s risqué photos seem contextual, rather than dated.

An ongoing gag about the Soapbox’s self-serving, politically correct “multicultural initiative” isn’t so fresh either. But it still has a ring of truth, and is expertly embodied by Reginald André Jackson as an ill-used African-American actor. (He wears costume designer Catherine Hunt’s absurdly demeaning spirits-of-Christmas outfits while wandering helplessly around Carey Wong’s destructible set-within-a-set.)

Jackson earns plentiful laughs with a straight face. But too often others in the cast confuse loud, vigorous mugging with comic finesse. (Krich, Curtis and Chris Ensweiler as an actor faking a back problem are the worst offenders.)

However, the slapstick bits and bang-up ending still work like charms. Watching hapless actors stumble, tumble and rumble through the world’s worst rendition of “Christmas Carol” may be cruel fun. But fun it is.

Misha Berson:

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