The play consists of three acts, taking place over three successive Christmas Eve parties. The first act, and party, takes place in the suburban home of Sidney Hopcroft and his wife, Jane Hopcroft. Sidney and Jane are frantically trying to prepare the house for the night’s festivities. Sidney is particularly keen on impressing the successful banker Ronald Brewster-Wright and his wife, Marion Brewster-Wright. Jane, on the other hand, seems to take pleasure in the simple act of cleaning the kitchen.
The Brewster-Wrights arrive, and almost right away Jane accidentally spills something on Ronald’s trousers. In private, the Brewster-Wrights express their desire to leave quickly, while another couple, Dick Potter and Lottie Potter arrive and laugh loudly (over the course of the play they’re heard but never seen). The next guests to arrive are Eva Jackson and her husband, Geoffrey Jackson. Eva complains that she needs to take her pills or else become a “raving lunatic.” Geoffrey, on the other hand, is a charismatic and handsome man. Alone with Ronald and Sidney, he alludes to his sexual affairs with other women and claims that Eva has to “play by his rules.”
Disaster strikes when the guests run out of tonic water. Desperate to please everyone, Jane puts on her husband’s raincoat and goes out into the rain to buy more. Finding herself locked out, she’s forced to ring the bell and enter through the front door of the house. However, Ronald doesn’t recognize her, and Sidney later lies by telling Ronald that the person who entered through the front was a deliveryman bringing tonic water. Sidney also begs Ronald for a loan that will enable him to expand his growing chain of grocery stores. Shortly afterwards, Geoffrey asks Ronald to recommend him as an architect for the community’s forthcoming shopping complex.
The guests depart shortly after one another, leaving Sidney and Jane alone once again. Sidney justifies his choice to lie to Ronald about Jane by saying that these guests can be “very useful to us.” He goes to watch television, and Jane returns to scrubbing the kitchen.
Act Two, which takes place exactly one year later at the apartment of Geoffrey and Eva Jackson, begins with Geoffrey berating his sad, suicidal wife. He suggests that he’s going to move out until Eva recovers, and alludes to having hit Eva recently. He also complains that his work on the shopping complex is slow and frustrating.
Sidney and Jane Hopcroft arrive, and in private Geoffrey bitterly notes that Sidney has been doing very well lately. Suddenly, Eva tries to commit suicide by stabbing herself with a knife. Geoffrey stops her and then goes out to find a doctor, leaving Eva alone. One by one, Jane, Sidney, and Ronald enter the room. Although Eva says nothing, and proceeds to write a suicide note and then attempt to kill herself, the characters seem not to notice. Instead, they notice various aspects of the kitchen, and volunteer to repair them: Sidney fixes the sink pipes, Jane scrubs the oven (just after Eva has tried to asphyxiate herself in it), and Ronald tries to change the light bulb in the ceiling (even while Eva tries to hang and them electrocute herself). Marion enters the room and mentions that the Jacksons’ dog, George, has bitten Dick Potter. At the end of the act, Eva begins to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” very softly. One by one, the guests join in. Geoffrey returns, accompanied by the doctor, to find his guests and wife sitting in the kitchen, singing a carol.
The third and final act begins exactly one year later. This time, the setting is Ronald and Marion’s Victorian home. Marion has become an alcoholic, and spends most of her time in bed. Eva stops by to visit with Ronald, and together they discuss their failing fortunes. Ronald’s bank isn’t doing particularly well, and Geoffrey hasn’t found any work in a while, since the shopping complex he designed collapsed.
Marion comes downstairs and begs Ronald to have a drink, saying, “It’s Christmas.” Geoffrey arrives as well, and Eva encourages him to ask Ronald to return the money he lent Ronald in the past. Then, the doorbell rings—it’s Sidney and Jane Hopcroft. Ronald admits that he’d like to tell them both to go away, but can’t, since Sidney has a sizeable deposit at his bank. He turns off all the lights in the apartment and hopes that the Hopcrofts will go away. Instead, the Hopcrofts enter through the back door and find Ronald, Eva, Geoffrey, and Marion trying to hide from them. Seemingly oblivious to their “friends’” attitude, Jane and Sidney announce that they’ve brought gifts for Ronald and Marion. They give Ronald a set of screwdrivers and Marion a bottle of gin.
Sidney announces that he’s brought a game for everyone to enjoy. The game, Musical Dancing, involves everyone dancing and stopping at the exact instant that the music stops. Anyone who continues dancing must take a forfeit—i.e., carry some object that makes dancing more difficult. Neither Sidney nor Jane plays the game. Humiliated, the other characters dance, too financially dependent on Sidney to ignore him.