A disquieting but invigoratingly satisfying chill blows into the Yuletide season with 'Twas the Night Before..., a quintet of short plays at the Flea Theater.
Christopher Durang's "Not a Creature Was Stirring" focuses with blistering humor on parental tyranny that ruins a family's holiday, as a bipolar dad (Ben Beckley) dominates his family with dangerous caprice. Director Kip Fagan allows Beckley to become overly shrill, but elicits a fine performance from Elizabeth Hoyt, who transforms from cowering wife to latter-day Nora with grace.
The first Christmas and the commercialization of the holiday are comically examined in Roger Rosenblatt's "Away in the Manger," in which Joseph (an excellent John Fico), who aspires to be a standup comic, and Mary (a charming Leslie Meisel) arrive at the manger run by solicitous Marriott (Ben Horner), who proffers anachronistic Christmas-related items without knowing why. As carolers and a Jimmy Stewart-impersonating angel (Rob Yang) fill the manger, Marriott asks if the animals, along with Judy Garland and Eartha Kitt, may also enter.
Mac Wellman's "Before the Before and Before That" poetically and elliptically examines the backstories of our fairy tales. Under the sure direction of Amanda Wright, who displays an eye for beautiful stage pictures, Kendall Rileigh provides the piece's narration compellingly, while Julie Ferrell, Megan Raye Manzi, and Vadim Newquist give intelligent performances in principal roles.
In "Christmas Song," writer-director Len Jenkin takes theatregoers into a boarding house where the Christmas Eve visitor will not be Santa but the angel of death. Although Jenkin's pacing is too languid, his richly drawn characters of landlady, snake-oil salesman, and prostitute (as performed respectively by Catherine Gowl, David Skeist, and Tanya Fischer) haunt immeasurably.
The show closes with the weakest of the five plays, Elizabeth Swados' minimusical "Holiday Movies." Alternating between a chorus that sings about slasher and disaster films (while performing Mimi Quillin's overly frantic choreography) and two elves (Evan Enderle and Pernell Walker) who, in the manner of television's Dinner and a Movie personalities, provide wrapping tips while they rap about the season, the piece overstays its welcome quickly: a dispiriting end to an otherwise terrific evening of alternative holiday-time theatre.
Presented by and at the Flea Theater, 41 White St., NYC. Dec. 21-30. Wed.-Sat., 8 and 10 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.