When Gary Apple decided to write a holiday show, he was determined to make it more naughty than nice.
The television comedy writer and Old Bethpage native had stumbled across the 2010 bestseller “Heaven Is for Real,” a true story about the near-death experience of a boy who claims to have seen heaven. Apple’s twisted sense of humor had him wondering, well, what if the kid had gone to hell instead? Way more amusing, right?
He self-published a book, “Hell Is for Real,” then adapted that into a wicked little musical, writing the book, music and lyrics, for the 2015 New York Fringe Festival.
“There are so many sweet Christmas stories, we’re all familiar with them,” says Apple. “I wanted to do something that goes against the grain.”
An updated version of that show, called “Christmas in Hell,” opens Off Broadway at the York Theatre on Dec. 13, and runs through Dec. 30. But here’s the thing: As Apple has rewritten and rewritten, his snarky, stick-it-to-Christmas parody has turned into a surprisingly touching tale about a sick 8-year-old boy accidentally taken to hell, and a father’s odyssey to get him back.
“Against my will, the show became about something,” he says. “It became about belief, and what it means to be a father.”
Now, granted, the show (as noted on the York website) is still rated PG-13 (for spicy language). And there are some very atypical holiday elements (Lucifer and Charles Manson figure in the plot). It’s also infused with references to his Long Island youth. Mattlin, the main character’s surname, comes from the Howard B. Mattlin Middle School in Plainview, which Apple attended. Two characters are also named for teachers from his days at Old Bethpage Elementary School.
“One I was fond of, the other I wasn’t — and neither was fond of me,” Apple jokes. “I was a devilish student.”
That may be, but the holiday spirit has managed to worm its way into his cynical heart.
“I love that the show touches people,” he says, noting that it’s more satisfying to see audience members tear up than hear them laugh.
“I’ve been a comedy writer a long time,” says Apple, whose credits include "The Simpsons." “I’ve come to realize that making people laugh is easier than making them cry. You can laugh and not really believe in what’s happening onstage or onscreen. But if you’re crying, you’re really invested in what’s going on. And I love that.”