I went to Santaland this weekend. Or was it Club Santaland? All I know is that I was on my way to the bar at Circuit Playhouse when an elf with a clipboard stopped me and made me stand behind a velvet rope.
"You're not on my list," he said, giving me the once-over twice like I might not be cool enough to hang with the pointy-shoe crowd. Eventually, after giving me more than my fair share of stink-eye, he lifted the rope and let me pass into a crowded room where other elves served cocktails to holiday revelers who were waiting to be entertained by Crumpet, Santa's snarkiest helper.
Live performances of The Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris' career-expanding monologue, have been a regular part of Playhouse on the Square's holiday programming for years. As a result, the once-outrageous humor became as predictably stale as last year's Christmas cookies. In 2009, however, Playhouse moved the show into the underused Cabaret Space (in what has since become Circuit Playhouse) and cast character actor David Foster as Crumpet. The makeover was nothing short of a Christmas miracle, and, since the perfectly cast Foster has grown even more comfortable with his material, this year's revival might be even better.
Out-of-work actors have been known to take self-esteem-crushing gigs in order to make ends meet. As Sedaris illustrates so vividly in The Santaland Diaries, it's hard not to feel sorry for a grown man or woman who, having fallen on hard times, finds it necessary to dress up as Mexican food or an imaginary creature in order to earn a paycheck.
Unlike Sedaris, whose introduction to New York City included a season-long stint herding children through Macy's to see Santa, Foster has never been employed as an elf. That doesn't mean he's not in familiar territory. "I was Goldy the Reindeer at Goldsmith's during Christmas one year," he's explained. "Horrible experience."
Horrible or not, the experience shows, as does Foster's love of cabaret-style performance. He makes no attempt to ape Sedaris' nerdy deadpan delivery, as other Crumpets have before him. He's a fast-talking gnome who knows the value of a withering glance and who can sing "Away in a Manger" like Billie Holiday. Foster mostly sticks to the script but tosses in a bit of scalding improv as he moves from table to table, patron to patron.
In spite of its bitter edge, The Santaland Diaries gets at the sentimental side of Christmas as well as any Victorian relic, although it's neither candy-coated nor kid-safe. That said, there were some kids in the audience when I saw it, and they seemed to be having a better time than anybody else.
Through December 22nd
If Scrooge was a brother, how would things be different? First of all, he'd be named Scroo. And, having learned his miserly ways from Boss Marley, he'd behave almost exactly like Dickens' original.
The Hattiloo Theatre's founding director and resident playwright Ekundayo Bandele likes his Christmas shows lean and dark. His play Forget Me Not Christmas, which the Hattiloo produced in 2007, was a reworking of Sophocles' Antigone set in the poorest place imaginable. And while If Scrooge Was a Brother isn't nearly as bleak, it's far more serious and austere than typical holiday fare.
Lacking a strong father figure of his own, old Scroo — expertly portrayed by T.C. Sharpe — emulates Marley and entertains the aging coot with racist jokes. Eventually, he becomes Marley, with all of the old man's prejudices intact.
Bandele has been writing and rewriting If Scrooge was a Brother since the mid-1990s, but the show still has some problems. He recently added carols to make it into a musical, but even when accompanied by nothing but a cello, these happy songs never quite mesh with Bandele's otherwise somber vision. Maybe next year.
Through December 26th