The Santaland Diaries
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
December 6, 2007
If you're sick of the same old Christmas fodder—i.e., umpteen productions of A Christmas Carol—then I suggest you check out The Gallery Players' fun new revival of David Sedaris's new holiday classic, The Santaland Diaries. Adapted by Joe Mantello from one of Sedaris's popular essays, Santaland is a bracing tonic for anyone who's had enough of Scrooge and It's a Wonderful Life. Part workplace comedy, part autobiography, this sharply-observed chronicle of the author's experience working as a holiday elf at Macy's will give audiences a whole new outlook on Christmas.
David, as the protagonist is named, seeks work as an elf a few weeks after moving to New York. He is almost penniless and is desperate ("A person needs a skill—why did I not realize this before?"). So, into Macy's he goes, where he is immediately hired, much to his surprise. He soon discovers there's more to being an elf than he imagined when he's thrust into "elf training," which covers everything from using the cash register to learning how to handle deaf and disabled children. The real challenges come once he's on the job, facing throngs of expectant kids, their high-strung parents, and an army of loony co-workers.
Sedaris paints a vivid picture of Macy's Santaland, starting with the elves' on-the-job names: Jingle, Frosty, Snowball (David's is Crumpet). But, he gives them all secret descriptive monikers. There's Ginger Snap, who innocently asks if she can wear her elf costume home every night; Flaky, the militant struggling artist who constantly espouses her dogma; and The Walrus, who treats "Santaland as a singles bar" by hitting on all the mothers.
Then there are sociological observations Sedaris makes, like the different routines all the Santas have regarding how they relate to the kids and their parents (there is one Santa who takes the job a little too seriously, insisting that he really is St. Nick). On the flip side, David notices that there are a great many parents who insist on only seeing a white Santa, not a black one—a disturbing bit of harsh reality amongst the jingle bells and holiday cheer. (To his credit, David always responds to these requests the same way: "There's only one Santa.")
Finally, there are many little ways Sedaris shows the cracks in his protagonist's armor. As the holiday season wears on, the disillusioned David changes his elf name to Blisters. Later, when forcefully asked by one of the Santas to sing a Christmas carol, David does so a la a drugged-out Billie Holiday. Then, there's the instance where he tells an unsuspecting child that Santa will come and steal everything in his house if he's not good. "I'm not a good person and never have been," David soberly tells us.
Santaland is the ultimate dark workplace comedy, and the script embraces that ambivalence. David's journey from optimistic desperation to jaded fatigue is clear but subtle. Director Jason Podplesky has a good handle on David's cheerfully misanthropic nature, but shies away from some of the script's darker undertones, preferring instead to present Santaland through an all-encompassing veneer of smiley Christmas spirit. It's an interesting approach that yields some good results, but generally seems to go somewhat against the grain of Sedaris's writing.
For the most part, B. Brian Argotsinger's lovely performance as David falls in line with Podplesky's direction. Argotsinger, however, seems to understand the play's double-sided nature a little better—or, at least, is willing to embrace more wholeheartedly—and is able to wring a bit more pathos and substance from its edgier moments.
The Santaland Diaries is another feather in The Gallery Players' cap. They continue to produce fine work at their comfortable Park Slope home, and have emerged as a perennially reliable company. Check them out and see why.