Santaland Diaries (Review)

Hit or miss holiday hilarity from David Sedaris

’Tis the season, and those jolly holiday elves at New Edgecliff Theatre (NET) have arranged for us to revisit Mrs. Jocelyn Dunbar of haute suburbia. She comes complete with a $1.98 blonde wig and a razor tongue, telling her merry tales of an overachieving older son, an underachieving younger son, a flame-tattooed, drug-devoted daughter, a crack-damaged infant grandson and, of course, her philandering husband and his holiday surprise to the Dunbar household: a screeching, mini-skirted, 22-year-old souvenir of his wartime romping in Vietnam.

Said souvenir, Mrs. D informs us, understands only one word of English: “Shopping!” She wears a bikini to Thanksgiving dinner and attempts to seduce her father and both of her half-brothers. Can anyone doubt that the Dunbar’s holiday entertainment will include murder?

Mrs. D is the creation of essayist/NPR commentator David Sedaris and author/director Joe Mantello. In most productions she fills up the less effective, less amusing second act of The Santaland Diaries, a pair of solo-playlets that have become, over the last decade, a welcome antidote to the saccharine shock of other Christmas entertainments. NET first presented the show in 2001 and has revived it most seasons since.

The typically stronger and far funnier Act One is that in which we meet Elf Crumpet, a 33-year-old actor wannabe who takes satiric peeks behind the scenes of wholesale holiday sentimentalism while working in Macy’s Santaland. Sedaris and Mantello leave few holiday traditions un-skewered — although, at the curtain, they unwrap one brief, lovely moment of pure, uncorrupted feeling. It should be riveting. Unhappily, it isn’t. I’m sorry to report that while it’s prettily set and lit, this NET mounting of Santaland at the Columbia Performance Center is off kilter and inferior to their 2001 version.

The problems with actor Russell Ihrig’s reading of Crumpet are apparent from his first 20 words. He sounds like he’s reading an essay, not acting out a story. He stands behind the words, not inside them. Director Michael Hatton’s staging is efficient, but he didn’t help Ihrig find the fox-sly, champagne-dry delivery that should — but didn’t — send the audience into aching gales of laughter. Nor did Hatton aid Act One, which is burdened with too much movement, too many light changes and too many blackouts.

Crumpet’s words are the whole and complete point here. They were, after all, first heard on radio. Reading them on NPR in 1998 launched Sedaris on a rocketing career with a half-dozen best-selling books to his credit.

Act One ended to brief, tepid applause at the final preview. Then came the problematic Act Two. In it Ihrig, now in drag, created a credible monodrama out of less convincing, more corrosive material. He gave Mrs. D substance. He made her plight bleakly humorous and raised three times as much laughter as he did as Crumpet.

SANTALAND DIARIES, presented by New Edgecliff Theatre at the Columbia Performance Center (3900 Eastern Ave., Columbia-Tusculum), continues through Dec. 20. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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