The Santaland Diaries
By David Sedaris
Directed by Juergen K. Tossmann
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Karl Seitz in The Santaland Diaries. Photo courtesy Bunbury Theatre.
If there is a seamy underbelly to Christmas, it is surely the retail hell that is crucial to the profound commercialization of the holiday. And the most ignominious part of that experience must certainly be the rank and file, temporary, seasonal hires in the department stores that rely on the windfall of Christmas to survive. The daily experience was long hours, demanding parents, incontinent children, and distinctly forced and phony jollity.
Writer David Sedaris had exactly that experience working at Macy’s in New York City. Published as a humorous essay in 1994, it was adapted into a one-man show by Joe Mantello two years later. Although he did work as an elf, much of the story is now thought to be extrapolated for comedic effect, but, whatever… Sedaris is a brilliant humorist, and the original essay is very funny.
Bunbury Theatre’s production boasts an appropriately candy-color set that sets a festive tone while also capturing the vile kitsch of holiday decorations in a large department store. The piece demands very little in the way of a physical set, relying on the actor to carry the action, but the set, designed by Linda Erzinger, provides valuable support here.
Karl Seitz plays the unemployed 40-year old man desperate enough for a job to dress in absurd candy-cane striped tights and baggy green elf costume, and he is a fair emulation of Sedaris himself, and he drives the narrative with inexhaustible energy and overemphatic physicality. A show like this is a tremendous burden on the actor, a freight train on a fast track that offers no break or other cast members to play off of, and Mr. Seitz works hard to put it across.
On opening night, at least, that was the problem for me. The performance seemed strained, as if Mr. Seitz was trying too hard, and was not yet able to relax and have fun with the material. To be fair, I must report that most of the audience laughed audibly, and many stood during the curtain call, but it didn’t reach me in the same way. Part of it may be that I fondly recall Sedaris’ original essay, which did make me laugh out loud, and that, for all its subversive and acerbic commentary on the ugly side of the commercial American Christmas, the narrator’s voice retained an innocence that welcomed moments of humanity amidst all the crass, selfish behavior. Those moments are in this script, but the edginess is too prominent to make the most of them.
Doubtless most audiences will be more aligned with the opening night crowd, and Mr. Seitz’ flop sweat may owe to first night jitters and he may well indeed settle into a more easygoing manner that opens up the greater potential of the material. In any event, The Santaland Diaries remains a tart and funny antidote to the deluge of sugary sweet holiday offerings on display this time of year.
The Santaland Diaries
December 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17 @ 7:30pm
December 4, 11, 18 @ 2:30
A reading of Juergen K. Tossmann’s short story, Otto’s Christmas Gift, featuring Matt Orme, Rena Cherry Brown, Juergen K. Tossmann and Frank Whitaker, will follow The Santaland Diaries after a brief intermission on the following days:
December 4, 8, 9, 11, 15, 17, 18
There is no charge for this production when attending The Santaland Diaries.
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40203
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.