backstage (2007-51)

Dear Diary...


...David Sedaris is mean!

by Kieron Barry

Beware,â” said Thoreau, â“of all enterprises that require new clothes.â” Tailor-made advice for David Sedaris, who famouslyâ"and reluctantlyâ"donned the garb of a Macyâ’s Christmas elf one awful Yuletide when loftier show-biz plans had come to nought. The legacy of his Sartrean hell is, of course, â“The Santaland Diaries,â” the 1992 essay that elevated Sedaris to mild celebrity.

The one-man stage show based on the essay has, for better or worse, taken its place in the canon as the work of choice for any theatergoer who fancies himself slightly alternative-minded but nevertheless feels that the festive season should be observed. (Whether a one-person show can technically be considered drama is, Iâ’m wholly sorry to say, the stuff of another debate.) The work adapts easily and obviously to a one-man show, as presented by the Actors Co-op this Christmas. Within the limits of the text, Sara Schwabe directs Jim Richardson in a sensitive and intelligent production at the beautiful Black Box Theatre.

At the outset, Sedaris skillfully captures the indignity of a 40-year-old man applying for a job that is, quite literally, beneath him. This sense of injustice is swiftly eroded as he spends the rest of the work thinking, and occasionally behaving, like a truculent teenager. Halfway through we begin to feel he deserves his fate, and by the end we are longing for him to end up with something far worse.

Sedaris, with his refusal to forgive anything but his own prejudices, is a writer I seldom enjoy. His work tends towards a kind of one-note shrillness that is far more deserving of satire than most of his well-meaning, decent-enough targets. He is traditionally admired by those quietly insecure members of the middle classes desperate to be noted for a sophistication they suspect they donâ’t really have.

Nevertheless, the text is not without its pleasures. Thereâ’s a lovely moment early on when Sedarisâ’ character is forced by Macyâ’s Human Resources into the ridiculous position of explaining why heâ’s always wanted to be an elf. In so doing, he finds himself worrying he might fail to get a position he doesnâ’t actually want, a precarious mental paradox best summed up by Morrissey: â“I was looking for a job and then I found a job and, heaven knows, Iâ’m miserable now.â” The most delightful line comes toward the end, when Sedaris fantasizes about responding to the by-now familiar threat â“Iâ’m going to have you firedâ” with â“And Iâ’m going to have you killed.â” Elsewhere Sedaris comments astutely on the silent, anonymous tragedy of families not quite functioning.

Schwabe does an excellent job of finding a varied and agreeable route through the script, and sheâ’s ably assisted by Amy Hubbardâ’s spare, streamlined, yet charming set. The staging is also helped by the natural grace of the theater itself. When a performer takes a seat among the audience, itâ’s normally the sign of a director running out of ideas. In the Black Box, it simply bolsters the perception of intimacy.

The work stands or falls, of course, on its central performance, and while Jim Richardson is perhaps not quite strong enough to support a 60-minute solo piece, he nonetheless proves himself a likable and engaging actor. His vignettes are not universally convincing, but here and there Richardson conveys all the sardonic glint and pursed inscrutability of a small-town Sean Penn. He also delivers an excellent Billie Holiday impersonation, which may be the most enjoyable moment of the show.

Itâ’s not long, though, before the relentless cynicism of the text starts to become exhausting, and one suspects that the tacked-on bid for emotional redemption at the end is the one element of the story that never happened in real life. For all his ability to convey a pathological fear of joining in, Sedaris lacks the necessary vision to provide a coherent alternative. This makes for an evening of slightly frustrating theater. However, overall there is much to applaud in this brave production by a company that deserves to succeed. Its chances of doing so, however, will depend on its finding better writers than this.

What: The Santaland Diaries

Where: Black Box Theatre

When: Through Dec. 22

How Much: $5-$15


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