Christmas is Hell
Rogue Theatre gets into the spirit with David Sedaris’ The SantaLand Diaries
I love David Sedaris. So, naturally, when I heard that the Rogue Theatre folks had made a change in the December schedule and replaced British playwright Bryony Lavery’s Frozen (a heavy story about a mother and her daughter’s serial killer) with the one-act adaptation of one of Sedaris’ essays, The SantaLand Diaries, I was thrilled.
The SantaLand Diaries is one of Sedaris’ earliest and best-known pieces; the one that basically launched his career after he read it on National Public Radio 18 Christmases ago. Based on his own experiences working as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand during the holidays, his observant anecdotes offer one of the most hilarious takes on the circus of Christmas.
The play strings the stories together in a one-act monologue, and in Rogue’s production the charismatic, lanky Matt Hammons stars as the out-of-work aspiring actor reluctantly working as the department-store elf Crumpet. In front of a colorfully painted backdrop of Christmas images, and decked out in his green elf suit, Hammons recites the horror stories of enduring the indignity on the SantaLand stage while suffering the mostly ugly holiday masses and, especially, his kooky fellow workers—elves and Santas alike.
There’s the eager young co-worker who asks her manager if she can work as elf year round; the Santa who makes the elves sing carols to the kids on his lap; and the insufferable parents, including the mother who asks elf Crumpet to tell her son that if he doesn’t behave, Santa is going bring him a lump of coal, to which Crumpet replies: “Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal.”
For all of Sedaris’ hilarious semi-autobiographical stories about his crazy family and the even crazier people and at times unbelievable situations he encounters, the effectiveness (and addictiveness) is borne of Sedaris being such a character himself. It’s mostly not an issue for the play, because Rogue and director Joe Hilsee do good work here and Hammons has created his own character. With minimal props—just three panels of Christmas paintings behind him, his elf costume, Santa’s chair and a wooden box that doubles as pedestal and a bench—Hammons flawlessly recites the one-act’s impressive amount of dialogue. His previous leading roles locally have included such charismatic frontmen as the title characters in the Blue Room’s productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Who’s Tommy, and he proves his range here with a gracefulness needed for such an intimate production.
The only off notes for me were borne of the preconceptions I brought to the performance. Sedaris’ familiar delivery could be described as one part cranky sarcasm and one part pathetic-but-sweet self-loathing, and while Hammons sticks to the script with the former, he veers from the latter with a tone of shrugging nonchalance. It’s a good move to distinguish himself, but at times he actually sounded kind of bored. It wasn’t a fatal choice, it just meant a line or three landed flatly.
But where it counted most, when Crumpet finds humor in the painful absurdity (responding to Santa’s demands to sing “Away in the Manger” by doing so in an unabashed impression of Billie Holiday’s singing voice) and when he allows the warmth of the season to momentarily melt away the sarcasm, Hammons was delightful, funny and even sweet. I laughed out loud through 90 percent of what was a very fun holiday show that poked fun at the holidays—which was a wonderful antidote to the stresses of the season.
Plus, as an appetizer, Rogue kicked off the night with the comedy and vocal stylings of Dickie LaRocca, the Italian lounge-singing alter ego of company regular Betty Burns. Her/his short warm-up performance included a hilarious crowd-fluffing comedy routine, plus a rousing rendition of Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” and even a little holiday-style Jim Morrison: “I am the Reindeer King/ I can do anything.”