There is an irreverent pitchfork of a spirit beating through Garry Apple’s new musical comedy, Christmas in Hell. This spirit must have delighted the New York Fringe Festival, where the play was produced in 2015. The musical displays a bare-boned, anarchic heartbeat which erupts most markedly during such songs as “Mrs. Hurvey’s Complaint,” in which a father of a young boy is told in harmonious tones how“f—ed up” his child is and another in which all the major underworld denizens join hands and body chains to proclaim that Christmas would be hell-like indeed if we had to celebrate it every day.
Christmas in Hell, which opened last night at the York Theater Company, tells the story of Davin (Elijah Rayman), a good-natured 10-year old whose school work suddenly bursts with satanic implications. Bobby’s father, Richard (Scott Ahearn, in a nicely understated performance), is called into the principal’s office as is Detective Zanderhoff (Dathan B.Williams), who is recruited to help Richard get to the bottom of his son’s transformation. Eventually Davin winds up in hell as no less than Lord Lucifer (a pleasantly scheming Brandon Williams) takes a liking to him. Richard is forced to seek various consorts of the devil in order to rescue his son, including a kind of satanic agent named Galiana (Lori Hammel in an inventive, soaring performance.)
Hell aims to dive low and come up kicking, making spot-on connections between the underworld and such real live mortal threats as Sean Hannity. It’s also appealingly unafraid to invoke Oz-like sentiment in its refusal to grant everybody in its cast a beating, earthly heart. Perhaps it relies once too often on such familiar underworld spoofing targets as Chucky Cheese, Leona Helmsley, and particularly a fruitcake dating back to 1964, a deadly bite of which kills off Davin in the first place and sets off the whole excursion to hell. This might be what one expects of a Christmas parable, but Apple and director Bill Castellino, who keeps the show moving along at a swift, necessary clip, are at their best when they find quirkier demons to lampoon.
Early on in the show Richard sings a lovely ballad about his inability to believe. He would like to, he says; but the literally doesn’t see any reason to. Apparently, he is seeking a reasonable argument for the existence of God but sadly hasn’t found anything. One can make the argument that this musical’s foundational mission is to bring faith into Richards’s life. And though this mission is accomplished, Richard seems the last to know it. He and Davin encounter figures straight out of the New Testament, but Richard never seems to make the connection between his former disbelieving self and his newly enlightened one. Similarly, we never learn why Richard’s father is raising Davin alone or why Davin was so chosen to partake of the evil fruitcake.
Answers to these sort of promising questions might have deepened the dark, antic frolic that is at the heart of Christmas in Hell. And one sometimes wishes the musical had had the faith to pursue more complex and meaningful choices. However, there is plenty on the York stage at present to joyfully defeat the cruelest, most moribund fruitcake.
Christmas in Hell runs through December 30 at the York Theater Company, located at 619 Lexington Avenue (enter on 54th St. btw. Lexington and 3rd Ave at St. Peter’s Church). Click here for more information, call (212) 935-5820, or email [email protected]