In “‘Twas the Night Before,” five playwrights offer their interpretations of the perennial Christmas poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Since the show preems at the Flea — home to experimental writers such as Mac Wellman — it’s no shock that it relies on sarcasm and despair more than traditional holiday cheer. And since each playlet is only 15 minutes long, it’s equally unsurprising that several feel tossed off. However, the installments that work are clever enough to make the short program rewarding.
After straying so far from his usual M.O. with the straight-ahead narrative of “Two September,” Wellman returns to fractured language and hazy meaning with “Before the Before and Before That.” Vagueness, though, still carries beauty as a woman gazes from a window — really just a plywood square — on an unhappy couple. Are the pair Adam and Eve? Is the night before Christmas somehow becoming that dawn of the world?
Maybe, but specific interpretations are less important than the play’s sadness about humanity losing its way. Hearing Wellman describe it, it’s easy to picture a place where the soul is perpetually weary and “all metaphors, all of them … come to a bad end.”
Len Jenkin creates a more traditional picture of loneliness in “Christmas Song,” in which tenants of a rat-trap apartment building celebrate the holidays in single rooms. Play is essentially a scene between a dying man and his hooker neighbor, and Jenkin crafts their conversation with small talk that obviously covers pain.
In other words, “Christmas Song” is the sugar-free version of “Light My Candle,” Roger and Mimi’s Christmas duet in “Rent.” As the fading gentleman, David Skeist gives the evening’s standout perf by matching Jenkin’s understatement. His lively eyes search his neighbor’s face with a need he never expresses.
On the page, Jenkin ends his seg with a harrowing symbol, but as his own director, the scribe botches the writing with confusing blocking.
Kip Fagan does similar directorial damage to Christopher Durang’s “Not a Creature Was Stirring.” Durang provides a screw-loose comedy about a man who demands that his family pretend he wrote the titular poem. Daddy’s version, though, keeps mentioning bats, which swoop in and attack every time they hear their names.
This isn’t subtle work, and Fagan makes the easy decision to let the actors be as manic as the text. Every moment is overwrought and overacted, with thesps shrieking their lines and literally sweating from exertion. It would be funnier — or at least more interesting — if Fagan sometimes let them speak instead of scream.
Final pieces feel incomplete. Elizabeth Swados seems close to a winner with “Holiday Movies,” a musical mockery of holiday film conventions, but her shapeless writing recalls an aimless, improvised sketch.
In Roger Rosenblatt’s “Away in the Manger,” Mary and Joseph get visited by everyone from Tiny Tim to a group of chipper carolers. At one point, Mary glares at a guest and asks, “Is your presence here fraught with typical Christmas story symbology?” But in this clunky context, it doesn’t sound like Mary speaking. It sounds like a playwright who hasn’t decided how to embody his central idea, so he lets a character baldly define it instead.