Sometimes, in the crush of sugarplums and candy canes, an audience may crave something different from the usual Scrooge and Santa sweetooth. The sly British import The Night Before Christmas certainly fills the bill.
…any holiday play that begins by playing the Kinks’ “Father Christmas” and ends with the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” … is good enough for me.
The Theater Alliance’s premiere of the 2005 one-act comedy by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson proves a saucy and provocative reconsideration of the season. The play begins with the capture of an elf caught breaking in at a Price Breakers store on Christmas Eve. The deadbeat in charge, Gary, is quick to call his equally lowlife pal Simon to help him figure out what to do with this intruder, partly because he sort of believes that the guy might actually be part of Santa’s crew, and what then?
Simon arrives in his pajama bottoms and boots and can’t believe how preposterous this whole thing is. Then the elf starts talking and explains the workings of the operation in a way that few of the countless other Christmas tales have bothered to try. In this, despite the obviously dismissive tone Neilson takes, he shows some thought and creativity in how it all might work if the magic of the season were real.
Enter a tart friend of Gary’s who is there to pick up a promised plastic toy for her son. Suddenly, the work turns on an actual plan that, despite the raucous tone of the overall piece, pauses for some quiet moments of social commentary and consideration of their desperate lives. What starts as a brash skit includes a little content in spite of itself.
As the two blokes, Nathaniel Mendez and Dylan Morrison Myers are quite good in their working class accents and banter. Myers particularly has a kind of Johnny Rotten-style wild-eyed outrage that propels his character; his reactions make a point even when he doesn’t even have a line. As the elf, Jared Mason Murray is pretty darn convincing, too, which may be what’s causing the problem for the two guys at the store: What if he really is what he says?
Raven Bonniwell has a much tougher row to hoe as Cherry, a character that is written to mostly require a sneer and a tight dress. Opening night, she was as inconsistent in her accent as her character was in her morals. Still, she is a welcome addition when she shows up at the store, if only because she’s wearing red. And her character certainly holds her own with the others.
Director Hannah Todd would do well to tell her characters to slow down a bit to wring the most laughs out of the comedy. Rushing may be endemic to the season, or at least opening night, but some space is needed to aid the rhythms of the writing.
There isn’t much of a set involved here. This is the backroom of a discount store after all, so a table and lamp and a few pallets sitting around complete the room. An office chair on rollers is indispensable for adding a little action.
The insistent crude language of its characters, though certainly realistic to the situation, may have been a little much for some of the viewers opening night, who tiptoed out midshow. For others, its bawdiness matched the hour of the late night curtain. With a big crowd gathered for a 10 p.m. performance, this may well start a welcome trend among theaters. Certainly, this one’s start time fit in well with H Street’s late night vibe.
For me, any holiday play that begins by playing the Kinks’ “Father Christmas” and ends with the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” — two songs that perfectly reflect the ratio of insurrection to brief sentiment in the play — is good enough for me.
Running Time: 55 minutes, no intermission.
Advisory: R-rated language throughout.
Theater Alliance’s The Night Before Christmas plays the H Stret Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE, Washington D.C., through Dec. 29. For information click here.