The Santaland Diaries chronicles another grotesque and unavoidable side of Christmas: the department-store visit to Santa Claus. Writer David Sedaris first gained notice when he recounted his experiences as an elf at Macy's flagship department store in Manhattan on National Public Radio. And the one-man show, currently on the boards at Southern Rep, is an adaptation of the series for stage by Joe Mantello.
The neat, effective set by David Korins consists of a giant candy cane and an easel with a calendar of tear-off pages that mark the approach of the big day, beginning 30 days out. Sitting on the crook of the candy cane is our hero, David (Gary Rucker), who has his face buried in the want ads of the Daily News.
"Macy's Herald Square. Big opportunity for outgoing individuals working as an elf." David circles the ad and laughs out loud. However, that night, while smoking weed with a friend, David calls the number and tells the voice at the other end of the line that he is interested in being not merely an evening-and-weekend elf, but a full-time elf. David has always been pained to see grown men dressed as tacos or cell phones handing out flyers on the street. Nonetheless, he has to face the fact that, at the age of 33, after only three weeks in New York City, he is rapidly approaching insolvency. He needs a job. Quick.
So off he goes to Santa's Village. By this time, we have come to know David a bit and to relish the idea of following him through the bizarre world he is entering. We also relish, on another level, Gary Rucker's subtle portrayal of this sardonic raconteur. For one thing, David is gay -- not a screaming queen, but a crafty performer who spices his narrative with a piquant dash of a homoerotic attitude. And Rucker deftly gives us the flip side, without beating it to death.
The corporate hierarchy of elfdom, as you might imagine, is totally weird, and David stumbles through it with a gentle, if somewhat astringent, bemusement. Once he has passed the urine test for drugs (by some miracle) and bluffed his way through two interviews, he is welcomed into a jolly confraternity of forest green jerkins and orange tights. He is presented with his very own Xeroxed book of regulations: The Elfin Guide. And he is encouraged to join in motivational cheers: "Come on you, elves! Feel good about yourselves!"
Next, he must choose an elf name, like "Jingle" or "Prancy." He decides on "Crumpet." There are a multitude of assignments in Santaland. You can be an "Emergency Elf," a "Cash Register Elf," a "Magic Window Elf." But whatever your assignment, you must above all be merry. Relentlessly cheerful. Unfortunately, David does not have a natural gift for relentless good cheer. In fact, it works on his nerves, like nails on black board. Describing an enthusiastic colleague, he sighs, "If she had any more spirit, they'd have to medicate her."
The trials that await him are foreshadowed in his very first encounter with the public, when a lout among the spectators welcomes him thus: "You look so f--king stupid!" An unpromising and prophetic debut. We follow "Crumpet" through his trials and tribulations -- always benefiting from his keen eye for absurdity. We meet an elf who feels compelled to inform the little boys and girls that she's not really an elf, she's an artist, and a method-actor Santa who takes his job so seriously that he won't get out of character even when there are no kids around. We meet the camcorder-wielding parents who art direct the meeting with Santa, and the child of liberal parents who tells Santa that what he wants for Christmas is for "Proctor & Gamble to stop animal testing." There is even the compulsory brief moment of true Christmas spirit (yes, Virginia, etc.) -- in the company of a somewhat mysterious Santa who seems to have no real name and who brings grown men and women to tears by reminding them of the real nature of giving.
All in all, this is a quiet, charming little show -- its cynicism is only skin deep. John Grimsley's direction is tasteful and inventive. Rucker imparts dramatic life to what is essentially a radio monologue with a sure touch -- subtly enriching the narrative by creating a amiably jaded and mischievous narrator.
On the night I saw the show, a full house was having a ball with this fresh, comic counterpoint to the endless Muzak of holiday cheer.