Cynical, hilarious view of the Christmas season

`Santaland Diaries' looks at the holiday through an elf's eyes

Review

December 29, 2006|By William Hyder | William Hyder,special to the sun

Here's a coincidence: Two shows about the Santa Claus at Macy's department store in New York are being performed in Columbia.

The Santaland Diaries, playing at Rep Stage through Jan. 7, provides an ironic counterpoint to the current attraction at Toby's Dinner Theatre (reviewed Dec. 15).

Here's Love, at Toby's, is a musical version of the movie Miracle on 34th Street. It is strong on sentiment, calculated to kindle a warm glow in the audience. The show's Santa Claus is just what we would want him to be -- sincere, loving, selfless.

The Santaland Diaries, on the other hand, looks at the Santa Claus shtick from the point of view of one of his elves. It is not the traditional picture, but it is a hilarious one.

About 15 years ago, an aspiring actor named David Sedaris took a temporary job as an elf in Macy's annual Christmas extravaganza. He found it a peculiar experience.

After describing it on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, he turned his script into a one-character play.

At Rep Stage, David is portrayed by Bruce Nelson. Following some extraneous words by director Joe Brady, Nelson enters casually and chats with the audience. He tells how he (David) came to New York hoping to become an actor on daytime TV soap operas, how out of desperation he answered Macy's advertisement, filled out pages of forms, went through several interviews and finally was hired as an elf.

We hear about Macy's training class for elves, with its motivational exercises, its cheers ("S! A! N! T! A!") and its insistence on the elves being relentlessly enthusiastic ("It makes your mouth hurt," David comments).

We see David unhappily donning his elf costume -- a green velvet tunic, red-and-white striped tights, a pointy hat with bells at the tip and pointy shoes, similarly equipped.

He tells us about the long path the children and their parents have to negotiate -- the bridge, the elf island, the magic mirror, the magic tree -- before they reach Santa. An elf is stationed at each of these points, trying to cope cheerfully with excited children and tired parents.

Every child is photographed with Santa, and the parents are encouraged to buy the pictures. Many bring their cameras and camcorders and hold up the line while posing their families with the elves or Santa.

David says his fellow elves are mostly show business people of one kind or another. A few had conventional jobs and lost them in a recession. Most of the crew members do not enjoy playing elves, but one older woman loves it. She wants to know if she can be an elf at Macy's all year.

Then there are the various Santas, each with his own quirks. Santa Doug spits when he talks. Santa Howard tells every child to be sure to leave chocolate chip cookies for Santa -- no other kind will do. Santa Santa (David could never learn his real name) insists on being Santa even when there are no kids around.

The children sometimes behave badly, but their parents are often worse -- mothers bullying their kids, fathers making vulgar remarks to the elves and to Santa.

Some parents, we learn, have racial preferences, insisting on a white Santa or a Santa of color.

As the show approaches its climax, it seems to be turning sentimental, like every Christmas show we've ever seen -- but no, the playwright maintains his cynical tone to the end.

Nelson plays his role to the maximum, with vigorous gestures and facial expressions. His timing is perfect, and he never loses a laugh.

The script indicates frankly that David is gay, and there are some sexually suggestive moments in the action.

The show is basically performed on a bare stage. To add color and variety, props and set pieces are brought on as needed by a stage crew member (Grace Anastasiadis) in ever-changing costumes.

The Santaland Diaries is not your conventional Christmas show, but it examines aspects of the season we don't often think about, and it does so with sharp humor.

Rep Stage presents The Santaland Diaries, by David Sedaris, through Jan. 7 in the black box theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; plus 7:30 p.m. Jan. 4, and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7. Reservations: 410-772-4900, or www.howardcc.edu/repstage.

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