‘Night,’ ‘Life’ offer two takes on Christmas: Cynical and optimistic


"The Night Before Christmas" at Theater Alliance. From left: Raven Bonniwell, Dylan Morrison Myers, Jared Mason Murray, Nathaniel Mendez. (C. Stanley Photography)
December 5, 2012

Snapshots of families you barely know tumble out of the red and green envelopes in your mail. Hackneyed carols cloy the air in supermarkets. The average Starbucks smells like a nutmeg emporium.

If, experiencing such exasperating phenomena, you long to give the yuletide spirit a savage poke in the eye, you will warm to “The Night Before Christmas,” Anthony Neilson’s irreverent comedy about cynical modern singles tangling with an elf. Now in a sassy, agreeably rough-hewn production from Theater Alliance — which is presenting it in repertory with the Frank Capra-derived “Wonderful Life” — Neilson’s expletive-peppered one-act pokes fun at sentiment, commercialism and greed, while turning sleigh-and-reindeer mythology inside out.

Directed by Hannah Todd, “The Night Before Christmas” chronicles a nocturnal crisis in a British warehouse. When Gary (Nathaniel Mendez), a purveyor of cut-price toys and other dubious merchandise, catches a would-be burglar (Jared Mason Murray) breaking in, he’s startled to note that the thief is dressed like one of Santa’s sidekicks. With the help of Simon (Dylan Morrison Myers), a dyspeptic Christmas hater, and Cherry (Raven Bonniwell), an abrasive hooker who covets Power Rangers for her son, Gary interrogates the elf, who insists on calling himself “an employee in an International Gift Distribution Agency.”

Todd keeps the scenario skittering zanily around Brooke A. Robbins’s disheveled-warehouse set, with its piles of plywood and cardboard boxes. The director’s chief asset is Myers, who stalks around in pajamas and boots, ranting and fixing his interlocutors with sour glares. Mendez infuses Gary with an endearing jittery doltishness, while Murray plays panicked straight man — er, straight elf — and Bonniwell vamps brashly as Cherry. (Erin Nugent designed the costumes, including Cherry’s come-hither scarlet dress.)

Playwright Neilson is Scottish, and his characters here talk plebeian British slang. It’s easy enough to follow, but the odd quip about Hartlepool or “Jackanory” lands with less zing than it probably does in the U.K. Overall, though, the banter is entertaining — wisecracking, but also perceptive about the mistletoe season.

In one particularly piquant speech, Simon denounces Yuletide as both a capitalist brainwashing ritual and a reminder of mortality and disillusionment. “Every year the same question: Is it me that’s changed, or is it Christmas?” he grouses. “. . . What have I gained? Will I make it to the next one? Every Christmas just another door open on the advent calendar to death.”

‘Wonderful Life’

If you must have a more dewy-eyed perspective on December, there’s “Wonderful Life,” a remounting of the solo show that the Hub Theatre premiered last year in Fairfax. Co-produced by the Hub and Theater Alliance, and directed by Gregg Henry, the 2012 incarnation again showcases the capable acting of Jason Lott, who co-wrote the script with Helen Pafumi. Standing beneath dangling lanterns, dressed in a brown jacket and slacks, Lott evokes hero George Bailey, the folksy angel Clarence, and other personalities from the 1946 Frank Capra movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The actor’s voice and body language deftly denote the characters, with help from Kyle Grant’s lighting and Thomas Sowers’s sound design: If Lott is speaking in a demure falsetto, with hands pressed together, he’s George’s wife, Mary; if he’s biting off his consonants gruffly, bathed in sallow light, he’s Mr. Potter, the villainous banker.

Once again, the show peddles its warm-and-fuzzy vision of trust and neighborliness in small-town America. It’s a vision that’s rendered a shade more nostalgic, this time, by the surrounding bustle of H Street. And the story’s inherent treacliness is a touch more palatable now, because “The Night Before Christmas” can serve as vinegary chaser.

Wren is a freelance writer.

The Night Before Christmas

by Anthony Neilson. Directed by Hannah Todd; assistant director, Melissa Englander; scenic and properties design, Brooke A. Robbins; lighting, Kyle Grant; sound, Marcus Darnley. About 1 hour. Through Dec. 29.

Wonderful Life

by Helen Pafumi and Jason Lott. Directed by Gregg Henry; scenic and properties design, Brooke A. Robbins; costume design, Maria Vetsch. About 75 minutes. Through Dec. 30.

Both shows are at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. 202-241-2539. www.theateralliance.com.

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