I heard my first excerpt from David Sedaris' SantaLand Diaries last Christmas break. I was working at the University of North Texas library, hoping to earn enough money to make rent and buy a few presents before the next financial aid check arrived in January. The library was empty: Most of the students were gone for the holidays or cramming for their last final deep within the library's bowels. Instead of shelving books in the stacks, I did office tasks in the workroom, surrounded by librarians and the constant drone of National Public Radio.
During one of the daily programs -- which, at some point, had all become blurs of pompous talk, repeated news, and incongruous music -- NPR played a snippet of Sedaris' original reading of SantaLand Diaries, during which he recounts his true story of being a 33-year-old man dressed in a green velvet elf suit shuffling kids through a maze of holiday displays for a one-minute chat and photo with Santa Claus. It was bitter, cynical, so...well, un-NPR. And it had heart -- real heart, not feigned radio-friendly heart, even if it was a heart calloused by the experience. Who wouldn't be disenchanted after spending a month herding restless parents and world-weary children (so young, so disenchanted) through a Christmas display in one of the world's largest department stores? One elf can tolerate only so many kids peeing in the artificial snow, coarse camera-toting parents, and deranged Santas, even if he does badly need the money to pay off his student loans and land that soap-opera writing spot.
The reading of SantaLand Diaries was Sedaris' debut on NPR's Morning Edition in 1994. Since then, the piece has won an Obie, appeared in two of Sedaris' books (Holidays on Ice and Barrel Fever), and has been adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello, the director of the 1997 film version of Love! Valour! Compassion! The play, which first appeared off-Broadway in 1997, has become A Christmas Carol for theater companies who want, or feel expected, to provide a holiday show, but don't want to dive headfirst into traditional sap, hackneyed ballets, or trite musicals chock full of kids' carols.
Fridays through Sundays
The play Santaland Diaries, which is being performed by the Fort Worth Theater December 1 through December 17, pairs the one-act version of the story SantaLand Diaries with a one-act version of another Sedaris story, Season's Greetings. In the SantaLand act, Sedaris' monologue has been transformed into a three-person play with Sedaris' character (played by Todd Camp) getting help from two other store elves (played by Lynda Rodriguez and Seth Johnston) and a sparsely decorated SantaLand, complete with the jolly, bearded one's throne.
Season's Greetings, which also appears in Sedaris' books as "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!" and remains a monologue, is a Christmas newsletter written by Jocelyn Dunbar (played by April Stroud-Johnston) that begins with the Dunbar matriarch expounding on the personal strength it takes for the family to celebrate Christmas this year. She then launches into the sad story of the Dunbar clan: Instead of discussing the usual holiday newsletter fodder, such as Junior's first steps or Jane's first-place prize in the school science fair, Mother Dunbar speaks of a child her husband conceived during the Vietnam War who shows up 22 years later (Khe Sahn Dunbar, whom she initially mistakes for a trick-or-treater), the son who got all the brains in the family, the daughter whose tattooed no-good husband left her and their child, and the hippie son who spends too much time in his room. The story ends with Jocelyn's failed scheme to make their lives normal, and a bizarre holiday invitation to the reader. The one-two punch is the perfect anecdote for those ho-ho-horrible seasonal blahs.