The SantaLand Diaries is a suitable Christmas classic for our times, an irreverent mixture of storytelling and stand-up tempered by that NPR-tone of new intellectual enlightenment.
David Sedaris' musings on his experience working as a 33-year-old elf at Macy's is laced with just the right blend of edgy, alternative, sardonic observations from behind the scenes in SantaLand and carefully placed moments of penetrating clarity, offering a fresh and unique perspective on the traditional schmaltz and syrup of the season.
Joe Mantello's adaptation for the stage sticks to the single voice of a one-elf show, leaving the piece in its natural state as a monologue. Although there is an extensive set and plenty of action from the Sedaris character, the hurdle of fully transferring the work to the stage is never quite cleared. It's easy to imagine a full-blown production of the piece, with a chorus of Santas, some scene-stealing kids, and elves strung across the stage like an explosion of Christmas-tree popcorn. Put it all to music, and watch the royalties skyrocket.
Gary Culig establishes an easy rapport with the audience, winning us over and earning our trust and interest. We watch him make the transition from post-graduate coffee-shop dweller to the respectfully rebellious elf named Crumpet, who, after a long day in elf shoes, prefers to be called Blisters. Director Matthew Howard allows Culig to get a little overly negative at times, overemphasizing Crumpet's sense of cynicism, but with the exception of a couple of unnecessarily slow scene changes, Culig keeps the audience captivated with his animated storytelling and his expressive commentary.
The play reaches a crescendo on Christmas Eve, when the atmosphere turns surreal and the Doors' "The End" plays on the sound system. In a production that features a bong-toking elf and a fanciful journey into SatanLand, it's something of a surprise that the play takes this long to indulge in the hallucinatory haze of holiday frenzy.
The evening opens with Sedaris' short piece, Front Row Center With Theodora Bristol, a vicious attack on the noble calling of the theater critic, attempting to demean a courageous practitioner by highlighting her heartless attack on the bone-crushingly bad Christmas theater performed by a trio of elementary and middle schools. Sedaris' satire backfires, however, since any astute audience member can tell the pint-sized performers had it coming to them.
Who could dispute Bristol's keen insight into Sacred Heart Elementary's The Story of the First Christmas, taking the thin-skinned thespians to task by observing: "In the role of Mary, 6-year-old Shannon Burke just barely manages to pass herself off as a virgin. A cloying, preening stage presence, her performance seemed based on nothing but an annoying proclivity toward lifting her skirt and, on rare occasions, opening her eyes."
McPherson Horle goes overboard in interpreting Bristol, turning her into a cold-fish caricature that would put Cheers' Lilith to shame. The transition from print media to performance piece is not a smooth one, and director Matthew Howard never discovers a way to put Horle at ease with the unconventional delivery of a written review.
Ironically, the apparent built-in audience for the show, those who are already fans of Sedaris through his stories and essays, is probably the audience least likely to enjoy the show. If you already know Sedaris through his own interpretation of his work, this production doesn't offer anything new, and the departures in characterization and tone are likely to be unsettling in the way that the movie version of a favorite book invariably is.
If you're coming to Sedaris for the first time, however, by all means, take the opportunity to get out and see this well-executed production of his signature story.