ARTS

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December 2, 2003

Sedaris's plays fill your stocking with cheer, coal

Jingle bells and Rudolph's red nose may have done it for us back in the days of elementary school, but most people have lost much of their holiday cheer before puberty is through with them. David Sedaris's The SantaLand Diaries is the perfect show for those jaded by Christmas and all its attendant rituals—the feigned gleefulness of salespeople in crowded stores, the endless repetition of the small cannon of carols, and the trips to have your picture taken sitting on a mall Santa's lap.

The Diaries is actually two monologues: the title piece and Season's Greetings. The latter, performed by Cyndi Rhoads, is repellent. Rhoads is Jocelyn Dunbar, a suburban housewife of adequate means in the process of writing her family's annual holiday newsletter. As Jocelyn recounts the past year for the audience, focusing largely on how the arrival of her husband's illegitimate Vietnamese daughter has ruined the family, one wants more and more to rip the mistletoe out of her hair and throw it at her. Quesan, the daughter, is now 22, but Jocelyn describes their interaction as that of a mother with a spoiled toddler, which is essentially how she views Quesan.

It's difficult to decide what is more disgusting about Jocelyn: how much she seems to resent Quesan's material needs or how blithely she uses ridiculous stereotypes of the Vietnamese. Her mimicry of Quesan's speech basically amounts to "fucky sucky two dolla." But Jocelyn's had it tough with her three other children, she wants us to know, and so we should not hate her but rather sympathize with her about the extra burden that Quesan's presence constitutes. Her daughter has borne a crack-addicted baby that Jocelyn looks after. The baby's name is Satan Timothy Speaks, but Jocelyn prefers to call him Don. Her younger son seems to be a lone stoner, which she is doing little to combat. And her eldest and most favored child (his framed picture is much larger than that of his siblings, and she kisses it saying, "we loooove you, Kevin") seems to be falling for Quesan.

None of this engenders the slightest bit of sympathy for Jocelyn because she seems so unfeeling as to deserve everything that happens to her. Her description of the more serious trouble that befalls the family a few weeks shy of Christmas also does nothing to win this reviewer's sympathy. It says a lot about her that when she comes home from shopping one day, having left Quesan to watch Don, and senses that something is amiss in the home, she calls the police and then waits twenty-seven minutes for them to come before ever searching for the baby.

The piece that followed, The SantaLand Diaries itself, was fantastic enough to wipe away the gross feeling that filled me after Season's Greetings. The monologue is based on Sedaris's experiences working as an elf in the SantaLand at Macy's Herald Square, the chain's massive original department store in NYC, and Lance Stuart Baker as Sedaris lives up to the promise of hilarity that the premise holds out. (See, kids, you can work blue-collar jobs and then become a best-selling author!)

David has arrived in New York three weeks before Christmas "with high hopes of being on One Life to Live." On a dare from his roommate, he applies for the Macy's job, although he says, "I'm certain I failed my drug test. My urine had roaches and stems." But, in fact, he is hired and shortly begins "elf training." He chooses "Crumpet" as his official elf name, and is led in motivational cheers by his managers, in which they all yell, "Santa! Santa! Santa!" None of this forced merriment sits very well with Crumpet, er, David, but giving his fellow elves mean nicknames (like "Flaky," who fancies herself an artist) helps keep him amused amidst the never-ending flow of parents hell-bent on documenting "the snowy fluffy world" of SantaLand, no matter how long they have to stand in line.

As an elf in SantaLand, David has an odd insight into the realities of rich Americans during Christmas time. He is forced to entertain children named Vanity and Damascus and Great, while working with other elves who, before the downturn in the economy, had "real" jobs. (The former ad execs are "the really bitter elves.") Racial tensions also find their way into Macy's wonderland, as some parents want their child pictured with a "traditional" Santa, while a black mother wants "a Santa of color." Having been ushered to Jerome, a light-skinned black Santa, the mother proclaims, "he's not black enough."

With Christmas drawing ever nearer, SantaLand becomes more and more hectic, so much so that David has cause to change his elf name from Crumpet to Blisters. Baker does a fantastic job throughout, though, keeping up David's energy and smoothly taking him from cynical to tired to refreshed. Like most Christmas stories that are repeated year after year (Baker first performed this role in 1998), this one too must have a soul-saving ending. This show has appeal, though, not because of any shreds of sentimentality it may let through, but because it answers the question that many of us silently ask of the mall Santas and elves —that is, "I wonder if their job sucks as much as it seems." The answer Sedaris gives us is a virtually unqualified "Yes." Plus, watching a grown man run around in green rubber clogs and candy cane tights has its own rewards.

The SantaLand Diaries is hilarious, while its companion piece, Season's Greetings, is heinous. So while Season's Greetings caused me to doubt my faith in Sedaris's humor, The SantaLand Diaries made me a believer again. And it was worth it.

Chopin Theater, 1543 West Division Street, 773-862-7623 (or www.ticketweb.com). Through December 21: Wednesdays, 8 P.M.; Fridays-Saturdays, 10:30 P.M.; Sundays, 6 P.M. Tickets $15-$25.