Denny Grinar in The Santaland Diaries. Photo courtesy The Alley Theater.
The Santaland Diaries / Season’s Greetings
By David Sedaris
Directed by Patrick Bias
Review by Keith Wait
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The Alley Theater opens the second production of David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries to be offered in as many weeks. Now theatregoers have the choice of two different renditions of the classic holiday story before Christmas Day.
It is difficult not to write this review by drawing direct comparisons, and to view the two six days apart is fascinating. Although written as a one-man show, for this production, director Patrick Bias adds an ensemble of four for Dennis Grinar’s Crumpett to play off of, and it gives the material a more farcical quality.
The story remains that of an unemployed adult man finding work as an elf in Macy’s Santaland during the holiday season, suffering the indignities of the ridiculous parade of unruly children and parents. It is a thumbnail sketch of the worst part of the materialism choking Christmas.
Mr.Grinar, with his fine sense of hapless resignation, seems a suitable choice for the role, and, although he struggled to take command of his lines early on, Grinar finds firm ground before the final scenes. Brian West, Caitlin Clemens, Cheniqua Breaux, and Spencer Korcz were more confident, jumping on and out of the action as various characters; joyously at liberty from the narrative burden carried by Grinar. Their presence gives greater bite to sequences such as when the notion of a black Santa (Brian West) prompts telling reactions from white and black parents.
The whole thing pushes the subversive quality of the story, taking on a more scatological tone that is entertaining, although it undermines the heartwarming note that Sedaris interjects near the end. It is, after all, a holiday story. But there is good fun with lighting and costumes, and Brian West is looser here than I’ve ever seen him, and very funny.
The piece is paired with another, lesser-known Sedaris work, Season’s Greetings. It takes the form of an annual holiday letter to her extended family and friends from a woman named Jocelyn Dunbar. Although she struggles to remain upbeat and cheerful, it details the discovery of her husband’s infidelity while serving in Vietnam, and the resulting prostitute-stepdaughter who turns up 22 years later, and her druggie daughter’s premature pregnancy. As played by Heather Green, she is equal parts June Cleaver and Sarah Palin, a heady blend of obsequiousness and passive-aggressive sarcasm that is very funny. One can admire the woman’s determination even while laughing at her self-righteous hypocrisy.
But with her mimicking of the Vietnamese stepdaughter, Khe Sahn, Season’s Greetings also dips into offensive stereotyping. Sedaris’ description of her in the script, however humorous, builds the foundation for it, but Green’s characterization of her in a “me so horny” voice is trickier business. It may be a fair reflection of a particular conservative, snarky, middle-class sensibility; one nailed by the Palinesque, “you betcha” delivery, but is it necessary? The Alley Theater delights in pushing the envelope of good taste, and has never been accused of political correctness, but something about the unctuousness of the character makes the offensiveness appropriate, yet the fact that it clearly plays for laughs seems to make the audience complicit in Jocelyn Dunbar’s racism.
Green’s character work here is solid enough that I think her portrait of Jocelyn stands without it. She fairly owns the character, although the play feels a beat too long. Season’s Greetings came off with more authority than Santaland Diaries, and it is a good companion piece. It would not be difficult to imagine Jocelyn Dunbar as one of the awful, demanding parents spoken of in Santaland. Season’s Greetings also moves into dark, mordant territory before it is finished that seems odd for the holidays, which makes it the more provocative of the two pieces. For all of it’s caustic wit, Santaland Diaries still reaffirms our attachment to the trappings of the commercial Christmas, while Season’s Greetings dares to look at an even darker place in the American character.
The Santaland Diaries / Season’s Greetings
December 8 – 23, 2016
Tickets $20 ($18 for students / seniors / military)
The Alley Theater
615 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
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.