Santaland Diaries : 75 minutes of goofy SNL
Just when you think you might commit homicide after one too many Christmas carols -- Bob Seeger doing "Little Drummer Boy" comes to mind -- go see Santaland Diaries. It's a deliciously ironic romp through Macy's annual Santa display in New York City : all about clots of kids with runny noses and poopy diapers who line up for hours, sure. But mostly it's about their stressed-out overachieving parents who fuel the seasonal mania just for a chance for little Dagwood or their princess Priscilla to sit on Santa's knee for a photo-op.
American humour diva David Sedaris first penned Santaland Diaries based on his experiences as a 30-something working at Macy's as an elf rather than stay on pogey. On any shift he was one of 17 (e.g. Cash Register Elf, Santa Elf, Photo Elf, Vomit Corner Elf &c.) . Sedaris chose elf-name Crumpet, noting "We were allowed to choose our own names and given permission to change them according to our outlook on the snowy world." [One day, feeling "trollish", he re-branded himself as Blisters.] Performed first as a radio monologue by Sedaris at Christmas '92 on radio NPR, in 1996 New York dramatist Joe Mantello morphed it into a one-act one-man play. By 2008 it was one of the ten most popular plays performed annually, Stateside, and is now on view at the Revue Stage of ACT starring Ryan Biel in a brilliant, note-perfect performance.
Directed by John Murphy, Biel captures the madcap antics of SantaLand with an exceptional balance of irony and empathy. Sure, often the script disses stupid human tricks with withering commentary. But even though Crumpet admits "I spend the day lying to people", to truly succeed the performer of Crumpet's role must grasp how Sedaris's heart was pumping with empathy beneath his rapier-fast tongue. Take these lines by way of example : "I was told that it is an elf's lot to remain merry in the face of torment and adversity... it won't be quite as sad as standing on some street corner dressed as a french fry (passing out fast-food coupons)."
Designer Ted Roberts aids and abets Biel in his triumph with a simple set : cream coloured trapezoidal panels on wheels that are manoeuvred about to represent different viewpoints in SantaLand. A couple of outsize boxes that scoot on and off stage and are lit up to reflect kids or coffee shop furniture or other stage paraphernalia. The backlit rear screen to feature hand-drawn maps and word sequences by projectionist designer Candelario Andrade -- particularly the typewriter drop-screens clacking off the days until Christmas -- these work well on the spare Revue stage.
This is Will Ferrell's angry dog screed meeting Monty Python's dead parrot schtick. The dialogue toggles between quotes from Macy's visitors with reflections from our wise elf. As in this bit : "Tonight I saw a woman slap and shake her sobbing daughter, yelling 'Goddamn it, Rachel, get on that man's lap and smile or I'll give you something to cry about.' / I often take photographs of crying children. Even more grotesque is taking a picture of a crying child with a false grimace. It's not a smile so much as the forced shape of a smile. Oddly, it pleases the parents. / 'Good girl, Rachel. Now let's get the hell out of here. Your mother has a headache that won't quit until you're twenty-one.' " [Curiously -- wrongly ! -- Murphy and Biel deleted the second quote, a true comic punchline if ever were one.]
Although only 20 years old, SD seems wrested from the late 70's, after a decade of hippiedom and eco-consciousness exited stage right and the neurosis of greed infected the Boomer generation. More ! Better ! Now ! Grasp ! Acquire ! Flaunt ! all became watchwords, and North America prided itself on spoiling its kids and itself but remained awkward and unsure of its ethos. Santas needed to be black for blacks, white for whites. Gays were still in the closet, known only by their monikers such as Snowball or Crumpet. Mentally challenged were called "retarded", as in "...for a few minutes I could not begin to guess where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began. Everyone looks retarded once you set your mind to it." So politically correct SD certainly is not. [But just maybe by projecting the word "retarded" over and over, larger and larger on the backlit screen, the offence the word inspires was neutered.]
No, it's the stage business and blocking and masterful voice manipulation for Biel, coupled with his nudge-nudge-wink-wink byplay with the audience, also the clever pin-spot effect whenever the monologue switched from Crumpet's observations to quotes from Macy's visitors -- these are what make SD work well. Images and ideas stick : that 1/3 of SantaLand's visitors are single and middle-aged; the 40-something with his "cracked and puny voice" who visited Santa three times one day and peed on him the final visit; the woman-child in pixie clothes who visits Santa with her aging Mom and blithely skips off afterward.
Crumpet dismisses many of the folks he meets as phonies, sounding all the world like Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame. But by doing so the poignancy emerges -- in the sequence of the "love festival", this particular Santa drives home the point that we need to drop our facades and slow our watches and ditch the maddening devices that virtualize our precious minutes on earth.
Best bits : The Santa as anagram for Satan piece. The just-cited Santa who doesn't even ask the kids what they want for Christmas but gives everyone a wee sermonette instead : "Remember that the most important thing is to try and love other people as much as they love you." And the final explosive scene on Christmas Eve when the manager loses it with a bitchy customer -- priceless !
Word coach gripe : The word "fucking" doesn't have to be emphasized each time it's used. The line should not be rendered "You look so fucking stupid !" rather "You look so fucking stupid!" An early reference to Crumpet's outfit, delightfully spun together by Sydney Cavanagh.
Go see advice : Not for kids younger than 12. For "lapsed idealists" who still cleave to values and dreams they want to believe in, no cynics allowed. For drama fans who want to see their favourite A & W burger ad guy turn in just an ace performance of wit and nuance and breathless play.