Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson is known across the pond as a visceral force in contemporary theater, from the vanguard of the brash “in-yer-face” genre, and creator of challenging works about sex, violence and mental illness.
In a digression from his usual penumbral stabs, the commercialism of the Christmas holiday gets a slight, mostly unfunny critical treatment in Theater Alliance’s The Night Before Christmas, playing at H Street Playhouse.
Neilson’s 1995 one-act takes place late on Christmas Eve, in a rundown warehouse run by Gary (Nathaniel Mendez), a goofy deadbeat selling “Christmas tat.” It’s not long before his vituperative friend Simon (Dylan Morrison Myers) is called in to look at what Gary has apprehended—a burglar dressed as one of Santa’s little helpers and claiming as such—or rather that he’s an “employee of an international gift distribution agency.”
The two dodgers interrogate the puckish thief, arguing over his fanciful claims until the arrival of Gary’s friend Cherry (Raven Boniwell), a local hooker looking to score some Power Rangers for her kid before Christmas morning.
The scrubby trio go at each other and their prisoner, the Elf (Jared Mason Murray) as he explains the physics behind Santa’s gift-giving operations and the real reason behind that “good Christmas feeling” the kiddies ache for. Things get more critical as the poor elfin fellow begins suffering from junk withdrawal and warns of the end of Christmas unless he’s released.
In what’s supposed to be a thoughtful moral deliverance, the down-and-out trio is given the chance to imagine potential material indulgence, but instead find their way to what’s at the core of their lives.
The central problem with the play is that it’s just not funny. It’s material worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit perhaps, but not much more than that. The characters basically shout around a one-note joke for about an hour. I get that some people are cynical about Christmas, or any holiday that’s been commercialized, and that it could be funny to see a person dressed as an elf tormented for a few minutes, but the exercise doesn’t run deeper than that.
The Night Before Christmas
Closes December 29, 2012
H Street Playhouse
1365 H Street, NE
1 hour with no intermission
Thursdays thru Saturdays at 10 pm
I find the whole thing awfully clichéd as well, starting with the premise of a group of grousers grousing about Christmas and worse off for trying to distance itself from cliché through the characters of hookers and junkies.
On the plus side, the performers are mostly able. Myers is especially good as the hate-filled crank Simon, physically spewing his lines with a Johnny Rotten snarl. Mendez plays Gary with a lovable doofus charm, while allowing the audience in to see layers to the character.
It may be a small aspect of a small play, but Hannah Todd’s direction of Murray as the elf bothered me. The piece may have worked better if the elf didn’t look, act or speak like an elf. The irony of somebody with the physicality of King Kong Bundy and sounding like James Earl Jones claiming to be an elf would’ve put a stamp on where this play attempts to be. The annoyingly high-pitched elf who isn’t an elf was just too cloying and silly for my taste.
Ultimately, some folks will find this play funny. I really wish I could’ve had a whiff of that “Christmas happy dust” to get me where they’re at.
The Night Before Christmas by Anthony Neilson, directed by Hannah Todd. Features Nathaniel Mendez, Dylan Morrison Myers, Jared Mason Murray, and Raven Boniwell. Scenic & properties design by Brooke A Robbins, costume design by Erin Nugent, lighting design by Kyle Grant and sound design by Marcus Darnley. Produced by Theater Alliance. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.