Advent calendars don't start on the post-Thanksgiving kickoff of holiday shopping that has become known as "Black Friday," but they should. The best account of the roller-coaster ride between the highest hopes of capturing Christmas magic and the unholy battling in the trenches of shopping, holiday crowds and visits with department store Santas is David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries. Taking the stage at Le Chat Noir, A.J. Allegra effortlessly channeled Sedaris' insightful, tender and sometimes biting voice in the hilarious essay-turned-monologue about seasonal employment, suspended disbelief and the meaning of Christmas.
Sedaris arrived in New York City as an aspiring writer and soap opera fan. Close-to-broke, he applied for a job as an elf in Santaland at Macy's, in the belly of Manhattan's commercial beast. His chronicle of his days in the cheer factory is by no means an anti-holiday screed, but if there were a middle list between naughty and nice that identified human failings exposed by desperate parenting, disgruntled employees and the strange anti-social norms of overcrowded New York, this would be it.
Allegra, who attended college in New York, had a sure command of Sedaris' sardonic humor, rants about the blissfully ignorant, and the incredulous self-awareness that for all his ambition, he's stuck wearing striped stockings and a jingly hat and going by the name Crumpet. He pores over an interview question about why he wants to be an elf; he ponders the segregation of changing rooms (Santas get a dressing room, elves change in a flooded bathroom); and he laughs off customer complaints regarding lack of elfin holiday cheer and false rumors about Cher visiting Santaland.
The set was fully decorated and festive, and some video projections and audio bits throw a little extra tinsel on the tree.
Sedaris' observations are entertaining because he is fascinated by the way people — both fellow employees and holiday shoppers — try to make Santaland live up to their needs, expectations and fantasies. Some elves confide to children that they are actors, not real elves. Some parents are maniacal about getting perfect photos of their crying, emotionally overloaded children on Santa's lap. One mentally disabled man waits in line for multiple visits because he believes it's a visit with the real Santa. And of course, there are unpredictable encounters with brassy New Yorkers in search of a restroom.
There are inspiring moments as well. In the end, it's an uplifting show because both cheer and misery love company, especially during the holidays. — Will Coviello