Today’s Christmas story usually involves a lovable family with a disproportionate amount of weird. This family then finds itself in a series of unfortunate situations overlaid with a terrible soundtrack until the last minute, when all family conflict is abruptly packaged into a large box. Gift wrap, please.
The Pilsen-based surrealist troupe Dream Theatre does it differently with their annual production of the holiday play “Cold,” taking an approach to Christmas that evokes strangulation with holiday ribbons more than the gaping cheer of gingerbread or Santa-pattern tissue. There are no zany aunts and uncles present, but only two characters in the play: a misanthropic hermit and a sex-addicted compulsive liar.
Nate, the former, is an agoraphobe who broods in his house for ten years and can only communicate through being cruel to other people. Eventually he meets Lyric, who is also deliriously lonely. She lies to anyone she talks to, hoping to give the illusion of happiness: a favorite tactic is to lie about her name. She also sleeps with more than the usual percentage of people she meets in the hopes that someone will stay with her. (Yes, this is a Christmas story.)
Once united, these two lonely hearts end up in a number of amusing situations, humorous not for the characters’ quirkiness but for their serious character flaws. The underlying thread of sincerity and stark reality behind the bleak-funny scenes with Nate and Lyric speaks to the importance and rarity of a connection with someone “magical” enough to ward off the Scrooges and ill-wishers of all seasons.
“This is a Christmas show for everyone that has ever been alone on Christmas. This is about two people who are not just alone but are in a city where everyone is out having fun…When they do interact with other people, everyone they meet is cruel,” says playwright and Dream Theatre cofounder Jeremy Menekseoglu.
Not only does Menekseoglu create an atmosphere of palpable loneliness and isolation on stage, he also draws in the audience. When Lyric and Nate go to a diner (it has the best free water), the waiters are horrible to the couple. And so is the audience, which plays the waiters. They also play everyone at a party where Nate and Lyric are entirely ignored, perhaps because they are also entirely uninvited: Lyric drops a few lies and drags Nate along with her. Direct involvement in the action pulls the audience into the world of the play. One reason to encourage this kind of audience involvement would be to distract from characters too self-pitying and downtrodden to be likable, but this does not seem to be the case–Menekseoglu notes that a drift toward despondency is averted by the fact that the neither character intended nor wants to be stuck. And eventually things do change for the pair.
When a group of psychiatrists came to see the play last year, one approached Menekseoglu afterwards: “This was the greatest study of loneliness I’ve ever seen. The only thing I didn’t understand was why people were laughing so much.” Maybe it’s time we actually laughed at a Christmas play and found something a little more revelatory and diffuse than the usual mass-produced messages. Menekseoglu said of the touching love story that “Cold” turns out to be: “Many of us never get to spend Christmas with the person we really love. What the audience will come away with is the parts of characters that we relate with. It’s a great play to bring a date to.”
As a Christmas story, “Cold” veers more toward reality-fused dark comedy with romantic tendencies and a poignant flourish than an excuse for a holiday stage set. The story does not try to make the audience feel like insiders–”Cold” is not a gently mocking comedy capitalizing on shared knowledge of tradition with a cascade of mediocre witticisms. This is a tale of experience and shared alienation–maneuvering through shreds of aspiration to a place where one is less alone. Characters deal with serious issues and navigate a society filled with anonymous parties oblivious to the giving spirit they would be radiating, were they part of typical holiday fare. Yet somehow, there is still humor amidst the trampled story of Nate and Lyric. Losing the ribbons with “Cold” sounds like tidings of maybe-not-comfort but certainly joy.
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th St. December 3-20. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8pm; Sundays, 7pm. (773)552-8626. dreamtheatrecompany.com