Who doesn't get cranky after a long journey? In "Peekaboo! A Nativity Play," Mary and Joseph certainly grow irritable during their slog toward a distant census bureau. As they near their destination, the soon-to-be parents trade recriminations. Joseph vows that their family will never travel again. A very pregnant Mary nags him to "admit that you're just super-duper lost." Even the donkey, Wilbur, has gripes: No more canned oats, please!
With "Peekaboo!" receiving its world premiere from the Hub Theatre, Washington-area native and dramatist Anne M. McCaw aspires to make us see the original Christmas story with fresh eyes. Gone are hushed tones, classic biblical cadences and the rapt atmospherics of crèches and midnight Mass. Instead, this humor-filled, family-aimed show — which Hub commissioned and developed — offers us a Mary, Joseph and Gabriel who are modern, moody, slangy and racked by doubt.
The play's approach is by no means irreverent; the angel and his teenage protégés ultimately embrace the challenge of the divine gift. Along the way, they mingle and clash with quirky supporting characters, including a petulant, narcissistic Herod and his bumbling, bickering sons.
Hub artistic director Helen R. Murray directs the breezily acted, daubed-in-broad-strokes show, whose chummy humor, wide-eyed delight in incongruity and DIY style — actors stroll around with guitars and other instruments, for instance — will strike many as charming and refreshing. Others may find that the systematic mystique-puncturing — and the zealous depiction of Mary and Joseph as self-absorbed, temperamental, besotted teens — gets wearisome fast. As for the central musical gimmick, which slaps new, folksy lyrics onto traditional Christmas carol tunes, it feels like something a church youth group might perform at a December potluck.
The production kicks off with a pre-show sequence in which the actors informally wander on- and offstage, fiddling with props and calling each other by their real names. Jonathan Dahm Robertson's low-key scenery, consisting largely of desert-vista jottings on dangling sheets, adds to the homespun vibe.
Anderson Wells lends charisma to Gabriel, whose sport jacket bears an angel-wing design on the back. (Amy MacDonald devised the exuberant modern-rooted costumes.) Katie Jeffries Zelonka does a wry, focused turn as a young but determined Mary, who is "totally freaked out" by the Annunciation but quickly recovers. Robert Bowen Smith can be quite funny as a guileless, amorous Joseph, who's anxious about his baby-care skills ("I'm gonna drop the hope of the world on its head!").
Jacob Yeh is droll as (among other figures) Wilbur, Herod and Mary's flaky mother, who spearheads a speed-diapering contest that terrifies her daughter. (Most of the actors play multiple roles.) Sophie Schulman is hilarious in the tiny role of the Drummer Boy, a quiet weirdo with a crush on Mary. The Drummer Boy's cameo is an example of the inspired whimsy that occasionally makes "Peekaboo!" more than just a cheeky paraphrase of a revered tale.
Hub Theatre, in the John Swayze Theatre at the New School of Northern Virginia, 9431 Silver King Ct., Fairfax. thehubtheatre.org.
Dates: Through Dec. 24.