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After last year's The Hot Mess Chronicles, a Viking funeral of sorts for its former Halloween mainstay, the Abreact comes back to the well this year with The Hot Mess Chronicles 2. This installment features four brand-new short plays, selected through a submissions process in collaboration with Planet Ant Theatre. The varied offerings are presented episodically by an ensemble cast of five, without a unifying theme or thread; this way, the show is able to be both harmlessly funny and soul-stirringly creepy, some to greater effect than others.

The production's first act is plainly its weakest, with two pieces full of quick, short scenes that require long, dark pauses to set up their sight gags and cutaways. "The ‘Screwed’ Tape Letters," an update of the adjacently named C.S. Lewis novel, concerns a minion new to Hell unable to claim the soul of a criminally boring human (Josh Campos and Brian Papandrea, respectively, who also penned the play). This interpretation doesn't add much perspective to the story, serving mostly as a vehicle for some running jokes and absurd-death gags; the highlight is James Nanys as a wasted, laid-back Satan, who’s somehow threatening even as he maintains a level of relaxation that rivals The Big Lebowski’s Dude. Next is "The Way to Win Over Annie" by Steven Blackwell, a romance told in flashbacks with a delicate Sarah Galloway as the title character, the seemingly heaven-sent girl. Whatever foreshadowing is inherent in the script is swallowed by extremely casual staging of the expository present-day scenes — the bleak and strangely funny ending is indeed a surprise, but sadly not of the should've-seen-it-coming variety. Director Mike McGettigan seems trapped in very literal staging for these two pieces; the lack of fluidity saps the scenes of polish and causes some unexpected drag.

However, the stilted issues of the first half are eliminated by the fine second act. First, "Exorcise Daily" by Andy Orscheln is carried easily by the dichotomous extremes of Dyan Bailey as a woman possessed. Although it's essentially one joke, the short duration, the cast's quick timing, and Bailey's giddy performance sustain it straight through. Finally, McGettigan ramps up the suspense in his own "The Whistler," in which a group of vacationing youth is stalked by a pretty innocuous-sounding killer. With off-the-cuff drug humor continuously interrupted by the ominous unknown, this superior piece ends the show on a high note with its mastery of edge-of-your-seat anticipation coupled with a special flavor of absurdity.

The stories roll out pretty quickly, with a running time of less than two hours and an ample intermission, the better to enjoy the theater’s uniquely genial atmosphere. Between scenes, the stage belongs to hostess Katie Galazka, bringing back a last vestige of the Abreact's gone-but-not-forgotten Night of the Living Dead: The Musical. In costume and character as a saucy, punny demon, Galazka is the perfect emcee for these proceedings, with her refined presence in happy counterpoint to her intentionally deflated humor. Also contributing to the overall atmosphere is Bailey’s sound design, blending aggressive and kitschy Halloween fare that, like much of the play, is silly but effective. Michelle Becker shows a flair for unusual costume construction, with a few hilarious pieces that would be a hit at any costume party.

The Hot Mess Chronicles 2 may succeed in some undertakings more than others, but the sampling of tones and storytelling types makes for an all-encompassing Halloween experience — complete with candy distribution. Although the tongue-in-cheek material isn’t particularly revelatory, the play is buoyed forward on the strength of its better moments to an outstanding conclusion that best highlights the collective talents of its artists. The final product is unquestionably messy (in more ways than one), but, in the spirit in which it was forged, this production is exactly what it wants to be: rebellious, subversive, and proud.


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