Neil Simon via Camus

It may be dressed up as a Christmas comedy, but peel the Santa suit off Nipping at Your Nose, and you'll find a bravely funny but unflinchingly bleak look at how cold and dark some December nights can really be. Local playwright William Mittler, who also directs, expertly teases out the despair and desolation tangled up with the holidays in this complex and powerfully affecting meditation on family, failure and fate—on love, life and, ultimately, loneliness.

It's the New Year's Eve after a strained Christmas Day, and the Lorenzo family is back together all too soon: in this big, empty room presided over by a drooping artificial Christmas tree, they're preparing to attend their father's funeral. They're a tortured brood, these four Lorenzo brothers. Behind the jokes about mom's bad cooking (“Her cookbook has a big picture of a swastika on it”) are four isolated, insecure little boys on the verge of cracking up.

Brother Jasper (a wild Spider Madison) is already in ruins, lost to mental illness and now a burden to long-suffering Maureen (Tiina Wiles), more nurse and mother than wife. Joe (K.C. Mercer) could be the next to collapse. Bitterly divorced with his talent and vitality fading, he's unable and unwilling to reconcile with his ex-wife, Meghan (Laura Kojac), and move on. Or maybe it'll be John (Mike Brainard), whose own marriage to the viciously shrewish Melissa (Mo Arii) is about as healthy and alive as that artificial tree, or baby brother Jason (Adam Clark), paralyzed and imprisoned by the mistakes of the rest of the family. As the snow falls, the tension rises, and in the shadow of their father's death, these brothers and the women that try to love them reach for some kind of hope and meaning.

It's a brutal night, with old wounds ripped open as gleefully as presents on Christmas morning, but Mittler negotiates it with care and impressive precision. Aside from a few rare flat moments, there aren't any false notes in Mittler's dialogue and pacing, even through some interminable screaming matches. The punch lines ring as true as the pathos. The cast delivers superb, pitch-perfect performances all around, but Madison and Arii imbue Jasper and Melissa with a particularly touching humanity: they explode what could have been staid stereotypes (the Fool and the Shrew) into deeply sad and sympathetic characters. Indeed, the texture and depth of Nippingare a credit to Mittler: behind the fury of emotion onstage is real sensitivity, honesty and existential dread. It's Neil Simon via Camus—holidays is other people—and it's closer to the real spirit of the season than any Santa Claus will ever be.

NIPPING AT YOUR NOSE at Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Sat., 9 p.m.; in repertory, so call for exact dates and times. Through Jan. 12. $14.

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