The holiday season can be a lonely one. It can serve as a reminder of better times gone by or loved ones lost. It can also bring out the worst in people. So when Jack and Sheila decided to start The Yule Connection in 1976 on the North Side of Chicago, it seemed like a great outlet for those suffering from the holiday blues. A shoulder to lean on became just a phone call away.
By 1983, Yule Connection had dwindled to five volunteers sharing a largely barren office. These strangers came together to make the season brighter for callers and, undoubtedly, one another. So goes director-playwright Eli Newell’s “Cold Town/Hotline,” anyway. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned seasonal sitcom doesn’t hit its mark.
The cast of this show tries to answer its call. With little to work with, they do their best. They bring fun into a space dedicated to helping others and should be commended for it. Yule Connection’s premise is an optimistic one. These kinds of support hotlines can be difficult due to the emotional labor the workers or volunteers are expected to take on.
Holiday stories are largely unbelievable. We aren’t expected to believe—as adults, anyway—that Santa really travels the earth in one day or that a snowman comes to life and invokes chaos with children. Contrary to popular belief, Will Ferrell isn’t a giant elf. But when it comes to impossible-to-believe storylines, this show takes the cake.
Beyond a multitude of converging stories in eighty minutes, the biggest wrench in this play is Sherman: an adorable eleven-year-old boy who, amidst freezing Chicago weather, runs away from home to find the folks at Yule Connection and who is not immediately returned to his family despite the fact that his father calls into the organization worried about his missing son. Sherman gets the group to promise not to call the police or his family because he got into an argument with his dad. And they comply. This is a group of adults who genuinely think it’s a good idea to keep a child, who isn’t in danger, overnight in their office.
The timing in this show is snail-paced, as if the characters are waiting for a laugh track. Lines hit the audience with little effect. The gimmicky dialogue is partially to blame, but responsibility also lies with a playwright who does double duty as director. It is a difficult task for writer to separate what they imagined from what works on stage.
Hardest of all is rousing folks during the holidays to come to a show and not just phone it in. We need a story to really rally around, to answer the call of holiday tidings. And unfortunately, “Cold Town/Hotline” has a deafening busy signal. (Amanda Finn)
Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark, (773)338-2177, raventheatre.com, $30. Through December 22.