We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Paula Vogel’s not afraid of your expectations: She’ll serve up a porn-writing housewife or a plague-stricken schoolteacher on a lusty romp through Europe, and for Christmas, because theater is an old, old kind of church and its devices are mysteries long-celebrated, she’ll give you bunraku-puppet children and ghosts who speak to the audience and a shamisen player to score the evening with Eastern-inflected carols. So buckle up for The Long Christmas Ride Home; bring your expectations, if you like, but be prepared for the discovery that they may not be necessary.

Or maybe you know precisely what to expect: Crowd any American family into a car, add holiday traffic and weather so fierce Dad has to break out the tire chains, and it’s really just a matter of what spark’s going to set things ablaze, no? The infidelities, the boredom, the siblings fighting in the back seat: It’s all either generic to the point of banality or universal to the point of poignancy, depending on your mood—or on how much wonder you can find in the formal games Vogel plays.

They’re ambitious, those games. The playwright has said more than once that this play is a response of sorts to the stripped-down, lyrical anti-naturalism of the quintessentially American Thornton Wilder (thus the exploded sense of time and the characters who narrate as much as they converse) as well as to the Japanese traditions of Noh and bunraku that fascinated both writers (thus the archetypes and the puppets and the shamisen). So the exotic rubs elbows here with the familiar, and perhaps with the over-familiar, too: On an icy road somewhere in suburban Washington, a Woman (Laura Giannarelli) seethes about her husband’s latest affair, while the Man next to her (Paul L. Nolan) stresses about money, longs for his mistress, loathes the idea of making this annual pilgrimage to the in-laws who despise him. They voice each other’s thoughts in this universe where everything is transparent and everyone pretends it isn’t, and meanwhile in the back seat, their three children—eerily expressive puppets all—bicker and bounce and dream about boys and threaten to throw up.

A wryly comical Christmas Eve flashback with the family’s Unitarian congregation (Bobby Smith is the hapless minister) sets up an increasingly uncomfortable round of holiday drinks and dinner with the grandparents (Smith again, as both), until the inevitable crisis comes—and then the action fragments into other times, as one now-grown child after another reaches a breaking point. Rebecca (Tonya Beckman Ross), locked out of her apartment when her lover (a puppet) learns she’s pregnant with another man’s child, thinks longingly of whiteout sleep in a snowdrift; in another year, Claire (Kate Debelack) considers swallowing a pistol when it becomes plain that her ex-lover isn’t going to get bored with that other woman (both puppets, frolicking topless before an open window); sometime before the others, Stephen (Kevin Bergen) hammers on the door of the house he’s restored with his lover, who’s inside with his new boy-toy. But only Stephen follows through on his suicide mission—a heedlessly angry night with, yes, a leather-clad puppet, in a backroom in the Castro sometime in the early ’80s—because, as Vogel would have it, the bond forged in that back seat so many years before will keep his spirit close at hand to help his sisters through their dark hours.

That’s a touching notion, given how much of Vogel’s art has been informed by the loss of her own brother Carl, who loved Japanese culture and died of AIDS. Whether it’s a rewardingly theatrical one depends on the finesse of the director, and Studio’s Serge Seiden hasn’t done enough to make sense of the way the play divides its time into moments of life and moments of ritual. The two need to be fused in some essential way, to be the inhale and the exhale of this story, concerned as it is with the rhythms of breath; here they’re more like two sides of the same coin, part of a unit but never unitary, appreciable only by turns.

Seiden has coached Giannarelli and Nolan toward stentorian performances in the call-and-response narrations, and the others toward a noisy, unconvincing naturalism in the confrontations with their partners. The church sequence, with its layers of public and private passions and its unexpected slide show of ukiyo-e woodcuts, plays with the requisite laughs but doesn’t find the hushed sense of wonder required if we’re to understand it as the seedbed of Stephen’s lifelong obsession with things and ideas Japanese. Most critically, a complicated sequence involving his spirit’s annual return to the living world—he chooses a beautiful man and, after a ritualistic dance that’s part courtship, part combat, borrows some of his breath—plays awkwardly, sapping the play of momentum just when it’s meant to be peaking.

All of which leaves the evening’s more delicate moments, many of them involving Aaron Cromie’s platoon of impressively communicative puppets, with nothing to resonate against. The puppets are intriguing enough, to be sure, and they’re eloquently manipulated by a crew that includes six puppeteers (Emmy Bean, Courtney Bell, Lucas Maloney, Betsy Rosen, Ben Russo, and Michael C. Wilson) in addition to the three actors who double as the adult children. And the production’s architecture—the poetically spare set by Daniel Conway, the stained-glass lighting of Michael Giannitti, and the joint efforts of sound designer Erik Trester and shamisen-player Sumie Kaneko, who creates many of the effects herself—ably supports the script’s effort to summon a world in which the sordid and the sublime come gracefully together.

When that world materializes now and again, Vogel’s dramaturgical acrobatics seem like nothing, and something supernal suffuses Studio’s production. But then the illusion shimmers and slips away, and The Long Christmas Ride Home rumbles on, another chronicle of unhappy people mired in an unhappy time, earthbound and oblivious and sad.CP