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'Twas the Night Before...

This program of short, holiday-themed plays by Christopher Durang, Len Jenkin, Roger Rosenblatt, Elizabeth Swados, and Mac Wellman isn't as exciting as it sounds.

Evan Enderle and Pernell Walker
in 'Twas the Night Before...
(© Max Ruby)
Commissioning the five, well-established playwrights Christopher Durang, Len Jenkin, Roger Rosenblatt, Elizabeth Swados, and Mac Wellman to pen short theater works inspired by the Clement Clarke Moore Christmas poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" sounds like a great idea, and there are moments in 'Twas the Night Before... that fulfill the promise of the project. Unfortunately, the majority of this undertaking by The Flea and its resident company of young artists, The Bats, is not all that exciting.

The program gets off to a good start with Durang's "Not a Creature Was Stirring," directed by Kip Fagan. In it, a mentally unstable father (Ben Beckley) reads to his wife (Elizabeth Hoyt), son (Jonathan Ledoux), and daughter (Katherine Creel) a Christmas poem that he wrote. It sounds oddly familiar -- except, in this version, there are a bevy of bats (Barnett Cohen, Bobby Hodgson, Emily Hyberger, Joseph McLaughlin, and Liz Wisan) that do quite a bit of stirring. They swoop down on the unsuspecting family whenever the father happens to say the word "bat," which he does several times. This absurdist premise is brought to life by the cast, particularly Hoyt, whose facial expressions are priceless. Yet the playlet itself runs out of steam before it actually ends.

The most elegantly written piece of the evening is Len Jenkin's "Christmas Song," which I wouldn't mind seeing again in a stronger production. A brief snapshot of a few lonely individuals in a boarding house, it's tender and heartfelt. We meet Mrs. Dolan (Catherine Gowl), who runs the place and still knits scarves for her dead husband; Henny (Donal Brophy), the handyman, who doesn't really do much other than sleep by the furnace; Dr. Peccado (David Skeist), a lodger who has prepared what may be his last Christmas dinner; and Tasha (Tanya Fischer), another lodger, who seeks medicine from Peccado. The play weaves in snippets of traditional songs that are beautifully sung by the cast. Unfortunately, the performers are stilted and unconvincing in the monologue and dialogue scenes.

The weakest of the entries is Rosenblatt's "Away in the Manger," which comes second in the program. Primarily a send-up of the commercialization of Christmas, it depicts Mary (Leslie Meisel) and Joseph (John Fico) as they attempt to get a little peace and quiet so Mary can give birth to the Lord. This is difficult to accomplish, what with inn owner Marriott (Ben Horner) bearing in anachronistic Christmas icons such as wreaths and ornamented trees, a quartet of carolers (Will Petre, Mary Schwartz, James Stover, Maiken Wiese) singing, an angel (Rob Yang) descending, and a mysterious, homeless man (Cooper Daniels) crashing the party. The piece makes its point early on, then struggles along with one lame joke after another.

More ambitious but imperfectly realized is Wellman's work, which has the best title of the evening: "Before the Before and Before That." A deconstructive meditation on the idea of "before," it's filled with cryptic and sometimes self-satirical passages. But director Amanda Wright and her cast don't do much to illuminate the text, so the presentation falls flat.

The program is capped by "Holiday Movies." Composed, written, and directed by Swados, it's a light-hearted spoof of inappropriate holiday-themed films. The loose conceit of this mini-musical is that the movies are being evaluated by two rapping (and wrapping) elves played by the hilarious Evan Enderle and Pernell Walker. There's really not much to the piece, and some of the bits are done better than others, but it does provide a few chuckles. I just wish the entirety of 'Twas the Night Before... offered more.


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