If anyone can find the dark side of the happiest time of the year, it’s David Sedaris. The master of sardonic storytelling has found a talented vessel in Joe Brack, who has concocted an animated, multi-layered spin on Sedaris’ painfully funny Christmas chronicle, The Santaland Diaries.
Santaland chronicles one of the more trying periods of Sedaris’ early years as a struggling writer, when he sought out seasonal work as an elf in Macy’s in New York City. From the second he steps foot in “elf training”, he is bombarded by a steady stream of ridiculous characters ranging from surly managers to hilariously profane fathers to entomology-obsessed Santas. As the Christmas shopping season wears on, Sedaris has to endure various indignities at the hands of his bosses and hordes of angry parents. His early enthusiasm and positivity wanes quickly, and his mood shifts toward toward cynicism and outright apathy. This atmosphere of disillusionment is familiar ground for Sedaris, and he mines it for quality laughs.
As with any comedic storyteller, the question of exaggeration for effect inevitably comes into play. The humor value of Sedaris’ story benefits from the idea that the strange figures populating the demented, fake-snow North Pole are, in fact, real, rather than the results of artistic license. Whether the characters and events are true to life, fabricated, or even a bit of both, the loving detail invested in each scene encourages the audience to accept the proceedings at face value and just go along for the ride.
The simple production relies upon the strength of that writing, as well as the charisma and comedic range of performer Joe Brack. Brack proves himself a versatile physical comedian as he breathes life into a panoply of naughty and nice personalities. For all Sedaris’ writing talent, his world weary delivery at readings and on audio books can often border on monotone. Brack seems aware of the danger of an hour of flat delivery in front of a live audience, and he wisely invests his performance with a manic tension, marked by wide, shifty eyes and exaggerated gestures.
Brack’s signature move, and perhaps the enduring image of the show, involves a rictus-like grin and violent head jerk, which serves to activate the tiny jingle bells nestled in his ridiculous elfin hat. He channels a creepy mannequin, brought to life to bring saccharine joy to all the good shoppers. This bizarre send up of the relentless cheer endemic to the Christmas machine is so spot on that even without dialogue or context, one could probably understand exactly what Brack is lampooning.
The low key design scheme leaves Brack mostly to his own devices, which seems to suit him. He roams the bare space, populated only by rows of chairs and strings of christmas lights, playing to the audience seated around him on all sides. Subtle lighting shifts follow him about the room, isolating what are supposedly different sectors of the gigantic Macy’s flagship store. The sound design mostly revolves around droll loudspeaker announcements, as a bored voice orders the sullen Brack back and forth from his breaks and ticks down the precious shopping hours that remain until the big day.
At one point, Brack was left standing in the dark for an extended period following a blackout scene change. The apparently unplanned moment generated its own unintended comedy, when Brack glared briefly in the direction of the lighting booth once the lights were restored. Other than this supposed slip, the production runs smoothly from start to finish, riding an absorbing rhythm of emotional peaks and valleys while avoiding the drowsy atmosphere of Sedaris’ recordings.
Santaland Diaries introduces a welcome jolt of snark to a cultural landscape awash in aggressive commercialism and oppressive levels of holiday cheer. Joe Brack’s energetic interpretation of Sedaris’ tale of Christmas in the trenches invites the audience to commiserate with the bedraggled elf and reflect upon their own holiday horror stories. It’s like a glass of egg nog with an extra shot of rum: one part sweet, one part spicy, and one part “Oh god, Santa is drunk again.”
The Santaland Diaries runs thru Christmas Eve, Dec 24, 2011 at Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC.
The Santaland Diaries
By David Sedaris
Adapted by Joe Mantello
Directed by Matty Griffiths
Produced by City Artistic Partnerships
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Runtime: Approx. 1 hour with no intermission