Christmas in July in December, WNEP Theater. This "angst-filled celebration of the holidays" is as strange as its billing. Ostensibly a comedy, it's preoccupied with the melancholy and morbid. And the anxieties afflicting its cheer-challenged characters are neither exaggerated nor downplayed, as the obvious silly or ironic approach would dictate. The result is a show that's playful yet sober, consistently amusing but seldom laugh-out-loud funny--in short, something welcomely nonformulaic.
Employing a loosely associative, improv-derived structure, the script follows five friends from a party at the start of the holidays to another on New Year's Eve. Along the way they grapple with imperfect romances, matelessness, disintegrating nuclear families, regret for the past, dissatisfaction with the present, and the grim march of time. Writer-director Dave Stinton's light touch and matter-of-fact tone keep things from getting too downbeat, but this stuff works precisely because it dares address the emptiness that for many is the true meaning of Christmas. Even the bits that land shy of the wryly rueful mark are honestly pursued, and some detours are almost more intriguing than the main action.
Of course, however intelligent or rich, material this leery of punch lines depends on able, assured portrayals. And while there's no star here, there's no weak link either. Though a little awkward at times, most of the actors deliver a couple of reasonably realistic performances apiece, making for a genuinely engaging rather than somewhat interesting show.