Actors Comedy Lab’s second annual presentation of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, playing Dec. 7-10 and 14-17 on N.C. State University’s Thompson Theatre Main Stage, is even better the second time around and could well become an annual event. The new and improved 2006 edition of playwright Tom Mula’s brilliantly imagined Christmas comedy/drama has the same director (ACL co-founder Rod Rich), the same cast (Tony Hefner, Jerry Zieman, Izzy Burger, and Scott Nagel) and the benefit of the invaluable experience gained during the 2005 production to help work out all the kinks.

ACL mainstay Tony Hefner repeats his wonderfully wry performance as the play’s scowling, morose, supremely self-centered, and money-mad title character, Jacob Quimby Marley, who dies unexpectedly and finds himself trapped indefinitely in an ancient dark, dusty, litter-choked Purgatory-style Counting House, somewhere between Heaven and Hell. Suddenly shackled and weighed down by the chains that he forged in life, link by link, Marley finds that only way out of this excruciating precinct of the Spirit World is to do a Good Deed and turn his erstwhile partner in greed and spiritual twin Ebenezer Scrooge (Scott Nagel) from his wicked, wicked ways. Making that miserly, malicious old sinner finally see the light would be a miracle indeed!

Izzy Burger is hilariously earthy as the Bogle, a ghostly guttersnipe who helps Marley navigate the maze that dramatist Tom Mula’s makes out of the Hereafter; Jerry Zieman is a delight as the fussy Record Keeper who sends Marley and the Bogle on their way — and, from time to time, he steps out of that role to perform a number of other comic cameos with distinction; and Scott Nagel makes his pithy portrayal of the infamous skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge fresh, new, and completely convincing.

Director Rod Rich once again whips all this show’s choice ingredients into a mouth-watering comic soufflé. The sprawling multilevel set and Victorian tops created by scenic, lighting, and costume designer Thomas Mauney create just the right atmosphere for this off-kilter comedy; and yeoman work by sound designer Robert Neuhaus and composer Larry Schanker puts the icing on this comic cake.

Triangle theatergoers who scrupulously avoid holiday shows, because most are sentimental retellings of the traditional Christmas stories, will love Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, whose wonderfully warped retelling of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is chock-full of surprises guaranteed to amuse and delight and, ultimately, move even the most hard-hearted ticket buyer. Desperately improvising to avoid eternal damnation has never been so much fun.

Actors Comedy Lab presents Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 7-9 and 14-16, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 10 and 17, at 3 p.m. in N.C. State University’s Thompson Theatre Main Stage, corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. $10 Thursday, $12 Sunday, and $15 Friday and Saturday, except University Theatre members get $2 discount Friday-Sunday. 919/515-1100 or [inactive 12/06]. Actors Comedy Lab: A Christmas Carol (e-text courtesy the University of Virginia):