It is a bold choice to name your show Hell, if only because of the headline possibilities it gives critics. But Theatre Nuevo is not in the business of playing it safe. All of the company's productions so far have been devised theatrical pieces, which means the cast collectively creates the show during the rehearsal process, and Hell is no exception. Each show is something of an experiment, and not all experiments prove successful. Hell is less successful an experiment than one would hope, but it's not a hopeless endeavor.
The four storylines feature Spencer (Kevin Corpuz), a popular man who committed suicide to escape his crippling depression; Ayesha (La'Brie Jones), a terminally ill Muslim woman who shared a forbidden same-sex attraction; Kate (Amanda Wales), the adult daughter of an alcoholic who grew into her father's disease; and then Sam and Lily (Rahamses Galvan and Elizabeth Van Pelt), two minions of hell who torment and observe these new inhabitants of the underworld. That underworld is filled with chalked statements of the cast and crew's own personal hells — "wet socks" and "buffering," for example.
The show opens with a full-cast dance number, which abruptly breaks down to listless wandering and fearful looks. (This is set to the first of at least seven variations of the Squirrel Nut Zippers song "Hell," each sung by Marshall Jennings, backed by a small band.) The timeline slews back and forth between the principles' lives on earth and their awakening in hell, which gives the show a scattershot feel.
Each new arrival is greeted by Sam and Lily, who are here for comic relief. They're both petty, afraid of their boss (they get a big laugh when they need to text him for advice after being told not to disturb him), and fond of breaking into song and dance numbers, at least one of which goes on so long it feels like stalling. Sam and Lily's other role is educating newbies on various faiths' conception of hell, which range from the Mayan hell Xibalba to the Hindu realm of blistering ice, Naraka. Often these info bursts are nothing more than a sentence or two, which make them feel a bit like unnecessary add-ons. When one description goes on at length, you suspect it must play a role later in the show. It doesn't.
This imbalance between cursory details and in-depth exploration is a problem throughout the show. There are sections that feel under-developed (Ayesha's story is given short shrift), and others that are perfectly fleshed out, such as Spencer's arc. We see him struggle with basic human interaction at the office, and then standing apart from everyone else while hissing voices and a grinding noise fill his head. When he arrives in hell, Sam and Lily bet on what he did to earn his ticket. Lily's guess of suicide gets an incredulous "Him? He's sexy as hell," from Sam, as if good-looking people don't have reasons to be depressed. "Yeah, well, life is hard," Lily responds. This simple exchange underlines Spencer's suffering and opens up the question of how Lily ended up in her minion role — just what does she know about the difficulties of life? It is a perfect moment in an imperfect show.
You get the sense that with another round of refining, Hell could have more of this depth and fewer over-long dance interludes and non-essential fact-spouting. And yet in fairness, the audience loved the dancing. Maybe hell is a critic with two left feet.