REVIEW: With Bells On is a Christmas comedy with balls

Here’s a jolly stat for this upcoming season of stat holidays: More suicides happen this time of year than any other. Perhaps it is because we are not all receiving our tidings of comfort and joy. All the lonely people: where do they all come from?

Two of them can be found in Darrin Hagen’s new Christmas comedy “With Bells on,” playing through Dec. 11 at the Roxy Theatre. The story opens as Ted holds his apartment’s elevator for his very tall neighbour – Natasha – who has all the fashion sense of a Christmas tree. Ted fights the social convention of being shy and silent in front of strangers in an elevator by making with the polite chit-chat. Natasha responds with an array of catty comebacks.

He: “Your perfume is very intoxicating.”

She: “Well, then don’t drink it.”

As is the rule of thumb, if you bring a gun onstage, it must be used. So, too, if you have an elevator in a play, it must get stuck – leaving this very odd couple cramped in a small and uncomfortable space. When Natasha reveals herself to be a drag queen, some hilarious and inventive tableaus follow. With impeccable set, costumes and musical score, director-playwright Darrin Hagen keeps sustaining the conflict, despite Ted’s best efforts to make things well. The humour works best when it’s juxtapositional – the big queen next to the short straight man. At it’s worst, it is laced with puns. Yes, this is a Christmas comedy with balls. Two can play at this game!

James Hamilton (Ted) and Paul Welch (Natasha) prove themselves very able in their parts. They are a textbook example of a study in contrasts. Like Hagen, the actors have a very big hand in sustaining and emphasizing the comic conflict throughout. The play’s running time of an hour feels shorter due to the briskness of the pace, even when the story takes a serious turn and reminds us that the Yuletide can be a very, very lonely time for some of us, the joy of others nothing more than rubbing our faces in it. I know you jolly ones mean well, but give the rest of us a break once in a while. And perhaps it is this that motivates Natasha to straight-arm the warmth of Ted away from her … um, him.

Hagen’s elevator muzak underscore is sublime. It’s disquieting when you’re the only one bellowing with laughter when the rest of the audience is silently trying to listen. A very big shout out also has to go to set and lighting designer Paul Bezaire.

For all its humour, With Bells On hammers home the point of the Christmas season being the time for fellowship: Spend time with a loved one, be it he, she or some combination of the two.