Most holiday shows, like holiday kids, turn out to be Naughty or Nice. In the Nice corner are those bright, cheery classics about love, family, and generosity that bring comfort to all ages. In the Naughty corner are your gritty, grinchy adult entertainments, populated by jaded singles, barflies, and bad Santas. Neither sort traffics in ambiguities; the world either twinkles with joy or smacks of acid cynicism.
Both sorts have their place in the seasonal rotation. Even so, I encourage you to try door number three. It’s a small door, sized mainly for elves but open as well to the 5’5” American humorist David Sedaris, who’s become a bestselling author and NPR darling over the past twenty years with books like “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.” Sedaris started his climb to fame in 1992 by passing through this little door, into the Santaland holiday exhibit at Macy’s Herald Square in New York City.
Working as a department store elf — in the raging, bustling thick of Midtown — gave Sedaris much to journal about. Written in the darkly comic vein of some of the best Woody Allen, “The Santaland Diaries” struck a chord with readers and listeners across America. Adapted by Joe Mantello in 1996 into a one-man, one-act narration by Sedaris (playing himself), The Santaland Diaries retains many of the original essay’s droll, self-deprecating comic observations of modern Americans at Christmas.
Produced here by City Artistic Partnerships and performed by Joe Brack, the show is fabulously funny and slyly played, full of well-timed funny moments and driven by Brack’s assured sense of off-the-cuff storytelling.
Accompanied by Danny Cackley on live foley, Brack is ostensibly Sedaris (credited as Storyteller) who is in turn working Santaland under the terrible forced pseudonym of Crumpet. In desperate need of work but full of much bigger dreams, Crumpet is not merely naughty or nice. He’s more like the good-hearted, ill-tempered Hamlet, veering constantly between periods of shy caution and flashes of quavering indignation.
Some days Crumpet takes his job seriously alongside the other elves, who are “so animated it embarrassed me to walk past them… It hurts one’s mouth to speak with such forced merriment.” On other days he snaps, attempting to rebel against the oppressive Macy’s employee handbook (referred to as “the elfin guide”).
Brack plays the naif with a palpable irony, hitting the more sour notes with a smile and quick-stepping across some of the uglier encounters into which Crumpet is thrown: self-absorbed parents, rabid children, and rampant disregard for good-ness throughout the store.
The Santaland Diaries
Closes December 24, 2012
RedRum at Fort Fringe
612 L Street NW
1 hour 10 minutes without intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and tickets
The show is performed as a series of vignettes, or journal entries, but the performance knits warmly together and keeps us wrapped tight. We wince and laugh at once; it’s sometimes sad, often silly, and poignant throughout.
Santaland, we understand, is a winter jungle of excess: wandering paths, stacks of toys, heaps of fake snow, and multiple huts full of waiting Santas. But Crumpet’s deep foreboding keeps him distant, which means The Santaland Diaries plays nicely as a stripped-down confessional: a bare stage, a red metal stool, and a bare back wall with some snowflakes lit in stencil. Brack shows his rapport with Cackley in some fun, fleeting bits, but this is truly his show. Bright-eyed and plaintive, with eyebrows dancing, Brack is naturally funny, and here he’s right on target. His dry wit is simply stated, his impressions of evil shoppers are just hammy enough, and he’s at ease in playing our reactions moment to moment.
Perhaps there are some loose bits of business to trim from this package. Cackley, though very enjoyable, gets roped into the story more extensively than needed. And the foley table itself, while it does offer some fun and creative sound effects, doesn’t enhance the show in a sizeable way.
But the trimmings don’t change the gift, and it’s a good gift indeed. There’s a rich world of holiday ruckus to mine between the pillars of Naughty and Nice, and Brack’s hard, fun work here brings it out on a perfect note.
The Santaland Diaries just added a Christmas Eve show,
Monday, December 24 at 7:30pm
The Santaland Diaries . Adapted by Joe Mantello from an essay by David Sedaris . Directed by Matty Griffiths . Produced by City Artistic Partnerships . Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Editor’s Note: Joe Brack occasionally writes or illustrates for DC Theatre Scene. It did not effect this review.