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Theatre in Review: Christmas in Hell (York Theatre Company)

Scott Ahearn, Brandon Williams. Photo: Carol Rosegg

A piece of holiday fruitcake from 1964 sets off a chain of events that throws open the doors of Hell in this relentlessly jokey new musical featuring book, music, and lyrics by Gary Apple. Unfortunately, a fifty-five-year-old bakery item is fresher than some of the gags on offer here. In brief: The fruitcake, which has passed through many hands over five-plus decades and yet remains pristine, ends up with Richard, a single father, and Davin, his eight-year-old son. Before you can say "The Omen I, II, III, IV, and V," the kid, who has inadvisably nibbled on this pastry from the Johnson Administration, is terrorizing his school, offering highly sexualized interpretations of the Dick and Jane books; drawing out the formulas for anthrax, napalm, and the red dye used in maraschino cherries; and nailing a living frog to a crucifix. (All of this is meant to be hilarious, by the way.) This leads to a parent-teacher conference where practically the entire faculty informs Richard, in song, that his offspring is "f---ed up." This might be good for a shock laugh, but they sing the lyric again. And again. And again. They also spell it out and make little cadenzas out of it. We're only two songs in, and it is painfully clear that Apple is determined to stretch his pitifully thin material to the breaking point.

Anyway, we learn that, after snacking on you know what, Davin fell briefly into a coma, during which his soul traveled to Hell, where Satan decided to adopt him. It was all a mixup, however: Carl, aka the Bogeyman -- a top employee from the Underworld -- arrived at the hospital to collect Charles Manson, who was dying in a nearby room. But Manson confessed his sins to a priest and his soul was washed white as snow. Carl, unwilling to return empty-handed, instead helped himself to Davin, who, back on earth, is carrying on like a perfect little devil. Now it's up to Richard to rescue his son from his new status as Prince of Darkness.

As Jean Kerr once said about a comedy she disliked, if this sounds funny, I'm not telling it right. In a way, I don't blame Apple for the bizarrely meandering goings-on -- I certainly had a hard time concentrating on the plot -- but some of the numbers wander so far off-topic as to be irrelevant. These include "My Favorite Place," an extended ode to the glories of Chuck E. Cheese; "I Wish That I Believed," which raises the issue of Richard's agnosticism before dropping it forever; and "When Your Hands Are Too Big," in which Carl laments his grotesquely oversized extremities; this requires the actor Zak Risinger to stare in horror at his perfectly normal-sized paws while singing, "What God would deform us/With hands so enormous/That people will cower in fright?" Couldn't Tyler M. Holland, the otherwise clever costume designer, provided some assistance?

Anyway, Christmas in Hell pretends to be delightfully transgressive, but that's not pine cones and holly berries you smell, it's desperation. Manson, we are told, was wounded in the prison library when "somebody shanked him over an overdue Anne Tyler novel." A potentially deadly elixir is hidden in a bottle of Clamato, because nobody in his or her right mind would want to drink it. And there are a couple of gags about Leona Helmsley and her recipe for macaroni and cheese. (Really? Leona Helmsley? Eleven years after her death and nearly thirty after she was notorious? How long has this script been around?) When Richard consults a priest, the good father ends by asking him to sign a form, adding, "It acknowledges we prayed together. The parish gets reimbursed by Obamacare." And, yes, Hell comes with a gender-neutral bathroom.

So careless is the book that the characters are constantly reversing themselves. The school principal who first professes to be terrified of Davin turns out to be the head of something called the Brotherhood of Lucifer. This allows him to assert that his elementary school career has driven him to perdition: "I've endured thirteen productions of Annie!"

Without the staunch support of a laugh track, such lines have little to offer. The best thing I can say about Bill Castellino's production is that it is filled with enthusiasm; this is especially true of the cast, most of whom field multiple roles. Scott Ahearn, as Richard, drives the action, capably playing straight man to the others and singing very nicely indeed. Donna English shows up as God Herself, authoritatively telling Richard to fix his own messes. Elijah Rayman makes a nice impression as Davin, even though, clearly, he wouldn't hurt a fly. Brandon Williams gives Satan an appropriate hipster vibe. Ron Wisniski does yeoman work as the principal and the priest, the latter of whom has been made Irish apparently so he can say "Jaysus" a lot.

I'm a little baffled by James Morgan's set design, which seems to place the action in a medieval castle, but I guess this is his idea of Hell; in a smart and economical touch, each of the pillars swivels to suggest other locations. Yael Lubetzky's lighting is heavy on colors and patterns, all in the name of working up a satanic atmosphere. As mentioned, Holland's costumes are pretty inventive, including a wild-looking muumuu (topped off with a lavender wig by Kenneth Griffin) for Lori Hamill to play an indescribable seeress who inserts herself into the plot by way of romancing Carl. Julian Evans' sound design is pleasingly natural.

As holiday stocking stuffers go, however, Christmas in Hell is neither naughty nor nice; it's the kind of gift that lands you in the return line at Macy's on December 26th. -- David Barbour


(19 December 2018)

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