Friday, December 14, 2007

PLAY: "The Santaland Diaries"

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais Kelly

David Sedaris, if you've ever read him in The New Yorker or heard him on NPR, is an icy humorist. He comes across as droll, listless, and bitter, which makes him perfect for the cold commercial holidays. But his slow, nuanced book, The Santaland Diaries isn't done much justice by Joe Mantello's adaptation, which, in forcing big-bellied Santa laughs with a series of jolly cuts that jump from joke to joke, loses the sardonic rhythm that sustains all of Sedaris's work.

B. Brian Argotsinger is missing something, too: he seems uncomfortable emulating Sedaris's sedate nerviness, but quite at home in Michael Wilson Morgan's candy-cane stockings, which constantly belies his own derision. Instead, he resembles the "artistic" elf he talks about, codenamed Flaky: he comes across more as an actor who hates his job so much that he'll turn it into something more agreeable, in this case, a chance to mimic his targets. Whereas Sedaris just calmly rolls everything into one casually caustic joke, Argotsinger leaps into the voices of those bad elves, Santas, and parents, which is pandering more to the audience than to the tenor of the text. (In fact, he commands the stage like a stand-up comedian, waiting for laughs and -- at one point -- talking directly to one person as he cracks a smile and says, "Oh, now you get it!")

That much isn't really Argotsinger's fault: he's not reciting the book, he's doing Mantello's overbearing play, and as such, his twinkling eyes are a good match for his perpetual sneer and slump. He's also not being helped by Jason Podplesky's perplexing direction, which often strands Argotsinger between lighting cues, forcing him to scramble across a set of hastily gift-wrapped boxes in order to hit his next mark. Sedaris is about as far from farce as you can get, and forcing his words into that sort of festive atmosphere corrodes the underlying ideas.

Thankfully, when the text is left alone, it continues to stand the test, and Argotsinger has a nice deadpan (when he actually uses it). Hearing a "serious" account of working as a Macy's holiday elf can't not be funny, especially when it's punctuated with pleasant anecdotes about the child who wishes for his dead father to come back . . . and for a set of the Ninja Turtles, or the trainee who wants to know if she can work as a full-time elf, year round. These accounts are funny on their own merit, but when they're accented, emphasized, or shouted, they lose their composure.

The Gallery Players has lately shown a commitment to showcasing works that haven't been around for a while (Six Degrees of Separation), or most recently, with brand-new musical productions (Yank!), but this staging of The Santaland Diaries seems as cool and commercial as Santaland's own mechanical efficiency. This production solemnly shuffles from (admittedly) good joke to good joke, but it's no surprise that it took a full thirty seconds for the audience to clap at the end -- we were all left waiting for so much more.

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