The Santaland Diaries
Portland Stage Company’s Studio Theater
Through Sun., Dec. 21 [SOLD OUT]
Portland Stage Company has offered theater-goers a choice this December. If you’d like a traditional holiday experience, you can sit in PSC’s main theater and watch the latest iteration of A Christmas Carol. Or, should you be in no mood for such a re-roasted chestnut, there’s the sour figgy pudding being served in the company’s Studio Theater: The Santaland Diaries.
This one-man show tells the tale of how best-selling author/NPR poster boy David Sedaris once spent a Yuletide working at Macy’s in New York. “I am a 33-year-old man applying for a job as an elf,” says Sedaris, here embodied by Dustin Tucker as a rumpled, stubbled slacker wearing a ballcap backwards. He applies not out of affection for the season, but because, “I’m twenty dollars away from walking dogs.”
Theater buffs will recognize Tucker from last year’s PSC production of Fully Committed, another solo piece focused on a man dealing with impossible customer demands at holiday time. The pleasure of Fully Committed lay in watching a nice guy prevail while maintaining his sweetness under pressure. Santaland gives us the spectacle of a tart-tongued man in a childish costume taking verbal revenge against the seasonal idiocies around him. Tucker seems to get more enjoyment out of his latest assignment. The audience does, too.
Clad in striped pants, a green velvet vest and a pointy hat, Sedaris/Tucker navigates the insanity of his new job with deadpan aplomb. He must deal with racist parents who refuse to let their kids sit on the lap of a “chocolate” Santa. He’s obliged to maintain a “grinding enthusiasm” in the face of tired, snappish, unmerry crowds that number in the thousands. And when parents instruct their tots to unzip and whiz into the faux snow of Santaland, it’s an elf’s job to just keep on grinning.
Anyone who has ever worked in customer service will enjoy the lacerating wisecracks that make this show crackle. As Christmas gets closer and the crowds grow larger — and especially after Sedaris changes his elf-name from “Crumpet” to “Blisters” — our hero starts to lose his patience. He’s the only elf you’ve ever seen light up a smoke and spike his coffee with booze from a pocket flask.
When one of the Santas demands that he sing a Christmas carol, Sedaris croons “Away In A Manger” in a desolate Billie Holiday croak. A mother wants the elf to advise her bratty boy about the threat he’ll get coal in his stocking; Sedaris tells the kid that, these days, Santa “comes to your house and steals things.” And when yet another unreasonable customer tells Sedaris “I’m going to have you fired!” it takes all the strength he can muster not to retort, “I’m going to have you killed!”
The Santaland Diaries is essentially an 85-minute standup routine. Since it evolved from Sedaris’ actual journal, it’s light on plot and must rely on changes in tone to avoid joke-after-joke monotony. When he kicks back and compassionately reflects upon his fellow elves (“These people never imagined there was a green velvet costume in their future”), Sedaris reveals a sensitivity that keeps the audience on his side.
Tucker tears into this hammy part with gusto. He knows how to play his cherubic looks against the impish material. Stepping into his elf costume for the first time, he fills the silence by airily counseling the audience, “Don’t be jealous.” And when it comes time to turn a bit serious — “I’m not a good person,” Sedaris admits, after witnessing some true holiday kindness — Tucker can sell that just as well as he can deliver a wisecrack. He understands Sedaris is a cynic with a heart made of the purest, shiniest tinsel. Who but a disappointed idealist would complain so tartly about the less-than-heartwarming aspects of the Christmas ritual?
It’s fitting that PSC is presenting both Dickens’ sentimental, idealized version of the holiday myth and Sedaris’ deconstruction of the same. Unfortunately, Santaland is sold out, but as of this writing, there are still tickets available for A Christmas Carol. Bah humbug!
— Jason Wilkins
For more info, visit portlandstage.com.