Lady Misrule,  ★★½,  Through Dec. 15, Walltown Children’s Theatre, Durham,

My first encounter with “Christmas noir” was as a college radio DJ, when Donald Fagan intoned the stark lyrics of Steely Dan’s “Charlie Freak” over telltale sleigh bells and a tight studio band. Lady Misrule, Tiny Engine Theatre’s dark December offering at Walltown Children’s Theatre, also deals with death, dodgy motivations, and unwise bargains leveraged at someone else’s ultimately fatal expense.

We find ourselves on the mean streets of an unexpected urban dystopia: the North Pole, home of Santa Claus (a blunt Kurt Benrud), Tanya, who’s more of an enigmatic placeholder than Claus’s wife (Erica Heilmann), and a cadre of human and elven “helpers” whose motivations—and propensities for unpredictable, aggressive, antisocial behavior—remain obscure.  

But director and playwright Paul Sapp’s challenging dramatic jigsaw puzzle attempts to transcend noir’s pulp-fiction pedigree when the murder that opens the work—the death of Nora Wurth, a young, idealistic, and seemingly universally adored helpmeet (a crisp Jessica Fleming)—only leads into broader mysteries. When her father, Stephen (David Berberian), has to be the unwilling gumshoe who investigates her death, the truths he stumbles upon raise questions deeper than those associated with the genre’s dime-store roots.

From a production standpoint, though, Lady Misrule repeatedly confirms the misgivings that tend to arise whenever playwrights direct their own works. The two jobs and their corresponding skill sets are far from identical. Playwrights have to clearly see the world they’re making; directors have to make sure we clearly see it. That doesn’t always happen in this production.

Mysteries are tricky. If too much is disclosed too soon, a big reveal evaporates into nothingness. But here, the lack of disclosure leaves too many plot points and characterizations unarticulated. Though thrillers thrive on functional ambiguity, the dysfunctional kind disadvantages Lady Misrule—the relationships, causalities, and tantalizing altered social structures they hinge upon remain too smudged past the final line. Noelle Barnard Azarelo’s lithe and lethal Kiki is an elf whose allegiances and motivations we never understand. Page Purgar’s gruff head of security, the hapless Tanya, and even Nora stay more shadowed than is useful.

Sapp’s script is promising, but it clearly needed another draft before production. Ending too many scenes with a last-line cliffhanger becomes a recognizable crutch, and the stop-and-stop pacing of too many brief scenes sabotages momentum, which is further dulled by the monotonous musical sound cues used in both acts.

That’s too bad, as this work engages worthwhile questions. When Santa’s estranged daughter, Connie (Laurel Ullman), seeks to shake up our core holiday tradition, Lady Misrule asks what’s lost when philanthropy crosses into coercion. Has capitalism fundamentally corrupted Christmas? What would a useful reset look like? And what happens when dehumanizing rhetoric is coded into the “others” in speculative fiction: elves, imps, and the like, who are and are not us? Unfortunately, the answers aren’t always fully fleshed out in this Yuletide inquest.