By Samuel L. Leiter
Tis the season to be silly, and the York Theatre Company, no stranger to quirky, musical silliness (see Marry Harry and A Taste of Things to Come), offers another example in Christmas in Hell, perhaps the silliest of them all. With a book, music, and lyrics by TV comedy writer Gary Apple (The Simpsons), this intimate, eight-actor, musical farce could actually be called A Child’s Christmas in Hell but it would only draw poor comparisons to something pretty close to that title currently playing at the Irish Rep.
Not that Christmas in Hell doesn’t have something going for it. Its score is catchy, its ensemble contains several standouts, its attempts at off-color holiday humor occasionally score, it has eye-catchingly amusing costumes (by Tyler M. Holland) and wigs (by Kenneth Griffin), and it gets a lively, over-the-top staging by director/choreographer Bill Castellino (Cagney, Desperate Measures).
Following a bouncy opening number, “The Fruitcake Canticle,” in which the company sings about a “fruitcake from hell” that’s been gifted and regifted around the world since 1964, we move to an elementary school. There, the teachers, led by the seemingly prim Mrs. Huvey (Donna English), sing “Mrs. Huvey’s Complaint.” This informs a single dad named Richard (Scott Ahearn) that his eight-year-old son, Davin (Elijah Rayman), is so out of line (with misdeeds like impaling a live frog on a crucifix) that he’s “F-U-C-K-E-D UP EXCLAMATION POINT!”
Christmas in Hell is largely a flashback in which Richard explains to Detective Zanderhoff (Dathan B. Williams), of the Hate Crimes Division, and his doofus assistant, Officer Epstein (Zak Risinger), how Davin ate the aforementioned fruitcake when it came in the mail, went into a coma, and was mistakenly snatched from the hospital by the Harvester of Souls in place of Charles Manson when that murderer (who actually died of cardiac arrest in 2017) showed up at the same hospital after a prison stabbing.
What follows is a farrago of screwy twists and turns involving a device called a “spectrofribrilometer” that brings the dead back to life; Davin’s disappointment at learning he’d missed Christmas while he was in Hell (“Somebody Owes Me a Christmas”); his Hell-influenced behavior (like comparing the smell of sulfur to farts); and an Irish priest named Father McDuffy (Ron Wisniski), whose need for confessions (“They Have to Let You In”) complicates the plot.
Then there’s the romance of a big-handed bogeyman named Carl (Risinger) and a weird, purple-haired woman, Galiana (Lori Hammel), who tears the house down with her marvelously outlandish “There Is Nothing More I Can Say.” Eventually, we view Richard’s trips to “the bowels of Hell” to retrieve Davin from the clutches of Lucifer, played by Brandon Williams (the ripped rocker in Getting the Band Together) as a rock star-like, multihorned devil in a sequined codpiece.
And maybe I should mention the Dark Priest (Wisniski) who gives Richard an elixir (of Clamato, no less) to take him to Hell; Richard’s encounter with God (English), whom he begs to save Davin (“You’re God”); or the crucial importance of Chuck E. Cheese to the bizarre proceedings.
“Mrs. Huvey’s Complaint,” with its profane explanation of Davin’s behavior, comes so early in the show it’s practically an anticlimax, as so little of what comes afterward is either as surprising or as funny. This isn’t to deny the general cleverness of the lyrics, one of which got me to bark midway through when Galiana sings to Carl of her willingness to spend eternity in Hell with him:
Let them yank out my nails and my pancreas too
Roast my leg on a spit
Drive a spike through my tit
Still Hell will be Heaven with you.
More of the fun, though, comes from the juiced-up cast, most of whom play multiple roles. All are fine at squeezing Apple’s lines and lyrics for every last joke, but Wisniski and Hammel combine such terrific singing skills with the sheer joy of hamming things up that you wonder why you haven’t seen much of them before.
York artistic director James Morgan has designed a cartoonish set of two-dimensional pillars, which he combines with similarly flat units to suggest the many locales. His Hell scenes offer sheets of flame hiding torture chambers like “The Fingernails on the Chalkboard Room” and “The Vault of Spotty Phone Reception.” There’s even a room the Christmas-loving Davin rejects, “The Chamber of Never-Ending Christmas.”
The product of workshops and readings, not to mention a 2015 NY Fringe Festival production, Christmas in Hell is mildly enjoyable holiday nonsense but, at a bit less than two hours, it goes on too long and gets more laughs from its hard-working performers than its contents.
Christmas in Hell. Through December 30 at the York Theatre (619 Lexington Avenue, between 53rd and 54th Streets). www.yorktheatre.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg