"The Santaland Diaries"
"The Santaland Diaries" is aptly named. Author David Sedaris, with the help of adaptor Joe Mantello, has apparently taken jottings, notes, impressions, vignettes and snippets of dialogue from his journal and mushed them together into an intermittently amusing pudding of reminiscences about a job as a Macy's Christmas elf. Just like diaries, telling tidbits vie with out-of-context lines and pinkie-(not thumb-) nail character sketches, resulting in a sometimes sarcastic, sometimes sentimental surfeit of superficiality.
While this may work well on the page or listened to on the radio (Sedaris is an NPR regular), it's less than scintillating as an hour-long stand-up routine. Bits are rarely developed long enough to mean much and, after a while, an audience's head spins from half-finished tales and half-digested ideas. It's an evening best savored between shopping sprees while checking off gift lists.
No sooner are we introduced, say, to a gay elf or a dense one, or no sooner are we let in on the secrets of how to shuffle people in and out of Santaland, then we're off on another tack. It's as if Sedaris/Mantello had their hands on the radio dial, tempting us to lend them our ears before devilishly switching to another station.
There are gems here: an imitation of how Billie Holliday might swing "Away in the Manger"; portraits of anxious parents as well as politically correct ones (requesting a white Santa); not asking a deformed child what she'd like for Christmas; choosing an elf name (Crumpet ends up as the more accurate Blisters).
There are also dollops of sugar amidst the acid, especially in the description of one of the Santas. Instead of asking the children what toys they want, he tells them how beautiful they are and advises their teary parents to "remember the most important thing is to love other people as they love you."
The story line, slim as it is, transforms the cynical job-seeker ("I'm a 33-year-old man applying for a job as an elf") into a believer. At the end, he tries to say a warm farewell to the caustic woman who hired him, only to overhear her berate a customer in terms better suited to the football field.
In this one-man evening, Sedaris is impersonated by Andrew Benator as a nerdy, Woody Allen type. Hands fluttering, glasses often askew, his body broken up into various parts, each with their own purpose, Benator has the demeanor of someone who can't quite believe he lives in the real world.
Disappearing into his red-and-white tights, yellow turtleneck, red-and-green tunic, elf shoes and hat (designed by Katherine Hampton Noland), he looks, by turns, idiotic and forlorn. Benator appreciates the character's dilemmas without commenting on them. He's at once embarrassed by and devoted to the material.
Director Steve Campo gives him as much mobility as possible. Michael Schweikardt's set design is frugal, as are Deborah Constantine's lighting and J. Hagenbuckle's sound. Aside from a throne-like Santa chair, little effort is made to re-create the wonder of a Macy's holiday environment. For that, we'd recommend you visit the store itself and, while you're there, perhaps, pick up a copy of other books by the clever Sedaris, to be read while waiting to sit on the bearded one's lap.
-- David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 28, 2004