I used to love the holidays. Then I became a theater writer. Now please don't misunderstand me. I never loved the holidays the way some people love the holidays. That is to say I wouldn't wear a Santa hat or jingle bells or festive holiday sweatshirts with reindeer drinking popular soft drinks. Not to the office anyway. I'd never bake cookies shaped like wise men or anything like that.
But, still, I kept Christmas in my own quiet, respectful way: some egg nog, some Rankin and Bass claymation, a hummed carol when nobody was listening, some more egg nog, and a screening of It's a Wonderful Life every other year or so. I'd probably watch that perfect-in-every-way Capra classic every year. But it would make me vomit. It would. Have you ever vomited egg nog? But it gets worse. You see, every year our theaters set their phasers for saccharine and trot out the same old program of Christmas "classics." Theatre Memphis will stage a watered-down (so as not to scare the kiddies or overexcite anti-Marxist witch-hunters) A Christmas Carol . So Scrooge's bed moves as if by magic. Seen it. Germantown Community Theatre trots out The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Not a heartbreaking work of staggering genius by anyone's definition. Playhouse on the Square revives Peter Pan and the low-brow yuck-fest A Tuna Christmas with Stepfordian precision. Circuit finally (praise be) put the lamely adapted C.S. Lewis fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe out to pasture in favor of the mind-numblingly folksy A Sanders Family Christmas -- which they have also staged before.
Though actors come and go, casts and directors change, the shows remain basically unaltered. Some people call this tradition. I call it torture. This year, certain that I had nothing left to say on the topic of Tuna, Dickens, or assorted Nativity scenes, I called it quits, vowing to stay as far away from the theater as a man could until the holidays were history. And then a letter came from the desk of Playhouse P.R. pixie Courtney Oliver. It announced the arrival of David Sedaris' scathing comedy The SantaLand Diaries at TheatreWorks.
Anyone familiar with Sedaris' books or his only slightly less sardonic NPR commentaries knows this writer isn't capable of sentimentality. It's almost as if he had his capacity for such things surgically removed at birth. The SantaLand Diaries, which began as an essay in Harper's, recounts his truly horrible experience working as an elf at Macy's SantaLand. It is the perfect antidote for anyone who has ever overdosed on Miracle on 34th Street.
How does one respond when a potential employer looks across the desk and with a straight face asks the question, "Why do you want to be an elf." The answer is obvious, is it not? -- "Because I need the damn money, you idiot. Why else would I agree to romp about in public in pointy shoes and vulcan ears?" Of course, this is not the answer potential employers look for. They want to be lied to. They want to hear "Because bringing Christmas joy to children has been my lifelong dream." The dichotomy between peppy, feel-good corporate culture and the desperation that leads a grown man to dress up like a taco and walk the streets of New York handing out flyers provides Sedaris with some of his funniest material to date.
In Sedaris' Christmas adventure, sadistic, perhaps delusional Santas force the elves to sing carols against their will. Racism rears its ugly head as parents request "traditional" (read: white) Santas. Kids pee in the fake snow, and puking is abundant. The job is so hellish it leads the writer to contemplate the similarities between Santa and Satan. He reimagines SantaLand as SatanLand where kids wade through burning fecal swamps to spend a few minutes on the Adversary's lap.
Forced to be perpetually cheerful, the not-so-perky Sedaris learns to sign little holiday greetings for deaf children. Things like: "Merry Christmas" and "They found a tumor in Santa's brain the size of an olive. The doctors say he'll be all right, but I don't think so." Cruel? Sure. But who's the guy who has to grin and bear it when Jersey roughnecks get up in his face and say things like "You look like a fuckin' idiot." That's right: the elf.
In spite of its cynical nature, The SantaLand Diaries is perhaps the modern Christmas classic. While it never comes right out and says, "Look how we've turned a beautiful time of celebration into a corporate-driven nightmare," that's the gist of it: A Charlie Brown Christmas for grown-ups. Playhouse on the Square regular Jason Craig stars, elf ears and all, as Sedaris. Though he occasionally seems to get lost in the meandering monologue, he generally nails all the author's put-upon nuances. Given overwhelming audience response, The SantaLand Diaries could become P.O.T.S.'s (and Craig's) newest holiday franchise. This one I can watch every year. For a little while, anyway.
The SantaLand Diaries through December 23rd.