Me, My Elf and I
David Sedaris's sardonic The SantaLand Diaries is a Christmas sugarplum all by itself. Well, it's something more impudent than a sugarplum: a sourish cranberry tart, perhaps, or a bittersweet chocolate brownie laced with hash. Whichever, the Bug Theatre doesn't serve Diaries unaccompanied. It adds to the mix the gleeful, iconoclastic impulses of the Bug cast and crew, headed by Gary Culig, and the jubilant responses of a devoted and no doubt somewhat plastered audience. The sing-along that begins the evening relies on this audience, which is urged to ever greater heights of lunacy by the expressive GerRee Hinshaw. Hinshaw conducts a version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that has audience members popping up and down, singing full-throatedly and miming lords a-leaping, calling birds and turtle doves. These few minutes alone are worth the price of admission.
Sedaris was an out-of-work actor dreaming of someday joining the cast of One Life to Live when he took a job as an elf at Macy's; The SantaLand Diaries is his description of that job. He first read the material on NPR in 1992, inspiring a deluge of requests for the tape. Next, the piece appeared in a collection of his stories, and in 1996, Joe Mantello adapted it for the theater. All scripts change in the hands of their casts and directors, but The SantaLand Diaries allows for more improvisation than most, at least in the interstices of the monologue -- and the Bug takes full advantage of this.
Culig leads us through the story: David applies for the job. He takes the drug test with trepidation -- "My urine had roaches and stems floating in it" -- and then assumes his role as an elf called Crumpet. At Macy's, he meets his fellow elves, most of them out-of-work actors and dancers, but some actually committed to the elf profession. There's Gingersnap, who wants to know if she can be an elf year-round; Flaky, who makes art out of found objects and human hair; and Snowball, a flirt who leads on all the other elves. David also learns the eccentricities of the various Santas. He meets sweet children and bratty children, children who pee on the Macy's snowbank and children who are terrified of Santa. And then there are the parents -- from those who lug along armloads of video equipment to those who demand either a black or a white Santa to the mothers who scream abuse at their toddlers.
Some of the observations are silly, but many are genuinely fresh and surprising, and Sedaris's caustic take on Christmas is refreshing. There aren't many holiday shows where you'll learn that the elaborate root system of Macy's magic tree resembles female genitalia, or hear a manager insisting that all of the female elves wear underwear because management is tired of washing "blood out of the crotches of elf knickers."
Once Hinshaw has warmed up the audience, the show rests primarily on the shoulders of Culig, who's not only up to it, but seems to be having a great time delivering. I imagine that The SantaLand Diaries would be pretty funny performed in a downbeat sort of way, with the protagonist's low-key demeanor contrasting with the frenetic energy of a commercialized Macy's Christmas -- but that isn't Culig's style. He's out there, grinning and grimacing and faking, letting us see his disgust, eventually becoming so pissed off that you fear for the scenery.
I saw Culig perform this show a couple of years ago; this year he seems to be following his feelings even more, so that you get a sense of David's growing psychic disintegration, even as the shopping days dwindle and life at Macy's becomes increasingly frantically jolly. Culig is very expressive; it's hard to imagine anyone else getting a huge laugh simply by pulling on an elf sweater and regarding us balefully over the collar. His timing is impeccable, and his mini-sketches of howling kids and hypocritical Santas are priceless.
Some of the improvisations are great, too. I enjoyed the moment when David realized that Santa is an anagram of Satan, causing Macy's to turn into a smoky, red-lit hell, with Donna Morrison, Ashley Vinson and Alex Weimer capering fiendishly about. But some of the other bits aren't as successful. Vinson's mincing Sugarplum Fairy, for example, is a lot funnier in conception than in execution. And I really missed the amazing Santa strip of two years ago.
This is a show that could easily be done -- and quite often is -- with minimal staging, but I love the fact that the Bug stage is cluttered with lights, glitter, red hats, toys and candy canes. The SantaLand Diaries is billed as an antidote to the flood of saccharine Christmas specials, but the evening's good humor, coupled with an unexpectedly moving moment in Sedaris's script, actually fuels a sense of warmth and camaraderie, kicking the season into high-spirited high gear.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.