By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Two new productions—Driving Miss Daisy at the Bath House Cultural Center and The Santaland Diaries at WaterTower's Studio Theatre—affirm all the best reasons to go out to a play. Another, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, also at the Bath House, serves as a 105-minute argument for renting a movie instead. At least then you could fast-forward through the dull parts.
The beauty and the danger of any piece of live theater lie in the many elements of the show that can go kerflooey at any moment. A dropped line. A missed cue. Someone coughs in the audience. Someone trips on the scenery. That a show ever goes right from start to finish is almost a miracle. When it goes as right as Daisy and Santaland, it can be a shared experience so magnificent you want to go back and do it all over again.
Theater doesn't get much more elegant and simple than Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy and David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries. Neither play employs elaborate scenery, props or costumes. The stage remains almost bare for Daisy, which has only three characters. All the driving of Daisy Werthan by her chauffeur, Hoke Coleburn, is done on three plain wooden chairs that represent the front and back seat of the car. In the one-hour Sedaris monologue, which grew out of essays the author performed on National Public Radio in 1992, there's only one actor and no stage at all—just a lighted area of the floor at the center of an intimate studio space.
It requires strong, experienced actors to take such stripped-down surroundings and make an audience see what isn't there. Daisy and Santaland boast exceptionally talented casts who excel at that. All are reprising roles with which they're well-acquainted. Doris Gramm and Mathew Greer first played Daisy and Hoke together at the Granbury Opera House in 1999; Michael Corolla, playing Daisy's son Boolie, joined them in a recent revival of the play in Granbury before coming to the Bath House. New company One Thirty Productions, supported by the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, performs only at 1:30 p.m. weekdays, a time aimed at senior matinee-goers.
The Uhry play really seems like a two-hander, with one extra character, Boolie, thrown in as a minor distraction. Daisy and Hoke take a bumpy journey from employer and employee to a relationship tempered by age and circumstance. It's Atlanta, 1948, at the start, and Daisy is a fussy widow of 72 who's crashed her Hudson once too often. Hoke, who's also getting up in years but needs a job, is hired by Boolie as her driver and then has to convince Daisy she's not "putting on airs" by having a black driver pick her up from the Piggly Wiggly or ferry her to temple on Saturdays.
Uhry's métier is writing about Southern Jewish families. Daisy, which won the 1988 Pulitzer for drama, touches on the social and political differences among upper-class Jews in post-war Atlanta. Miss Daisy has little to do with her uppity daughter-in-law, Florine (never seen but much discussed), and mocks her gaudy Christmas decorations and the size of her nose. And though Daisy fancies herself a liberal "without a prejudiced bone in my body," she accuses Hoke of stealing food from her pantry ("they all do it," she says).
Similar themes arise in the more broadly comedic play The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Uhry's Tony Award winner from 1997. It takes place in the home of the social-climbing Freitags, who are in-laws mentioned by Miss Daisy. That play is running for its third holiday go-round right now at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.
One Thirty Productions has put on the pitch-perfect Driving Miss Daisy, directed by Larry Randolph. We see the relationship between Daisy and Hoke deepen over decades and in the subtlest ways. Theirs is a marriage of sorts and the easy chemistry between actors Gramm and Greer is at its best in a scene that has Daisy stranded in her mansion during an ice storm. Hoke turns up as usual for work—a reassuring, protective presence. But we sense that he needs to be there as much as she needs him to be.
Lovely little exchanges of power play out. Miss Daisy relaxes her brittle reserve upon discovering that Hoke is illiterate. As an ex-schoolteacher who "taught some of the stupidest children God ever put on this earth," she immediately starts teaching him to read. Hoke, underplayed brilliantly by Greer, shows shrewd business acumen when he earns a raise by convincing Boolie that another Jewish family is trying to hire him away.
In the final scene, Miss Daisy, in her 90s and stooped double over a walker, is visited by Hoke in the nursing home. He slowly raises forkfuls of pumpkin pie to her lips, gently coaxing her to eat. It is a heartbreaking and heartwarming moment between two intimate friends—so human, so graceful, so real, it's easy to forget they're acting.
Is actor Nye Cooper funny in The Santaland Diaries? Does an elf wear pointy shoes?
Cooper, kicking around in green elfin footwear, is get-down hilarious as Crumpet, one of Santa's helpers at Macy's in New York City. David Sedaris was a starving actor when he took the job of shepherding thousands of squealing kids and their pushy parents one Christmas season. His bitter observations on the experience were a hit on NPR and vaulted him to celebrity writer status. The Diaries were adapted into a one-man show, which Addison's WaterTower Theatre has produced for seven years running. Cooper has played Crumpet for six of those, taking last year off to do another show elsewhere.
Having him back in Crumpet's peppermint-striped tights feels like WaterTower's gift to fans of this cynical show. Cooper can out-Sedaris Sedaris. His voice oozes sarcasm—"She said, 'I'm going to have you fired,' and I said, 'I'm going to have you killed'"—and he provokes roars of laughter with each sharply timed arch of a thick, black eyebrow.
Santaland Diaries is not for kiddies. Crumpet talks dirty about his fellow elves—he's got his eye on a flirty number named Snowflake—but he does go a little gooey toward the end of his hour-long rant when he comes upon one hired-in Santa who fills even an angry, underpaid helper with the true spirit of Christmas.
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, now playing evenings at the Bath House, is about kid characters, but it's not for very young theatergoers either. Bert V. Royal's unauthorized satire of Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts gang supposes that as teenagers, Charlie Brown (CB), Linus (called Van), Lucy (Van's sister), Schroeder and the rest are surly, foulmouthed creeps. Snoopy's been put to sleep after attacking and eating Woodstock (the little yellow bird). CB is so sexually ambiguous he's sleeping with Lucy and Schroeder (called Beethoven here). And remember Pigpen? Now he's Matt, a gay-hating germophobe. Aaargh.
The ugly conceit of this play wears thin immediately. OK, they're rotten kids disappointed to learn that happiness isn't a warm puppy. As the playwright pours on the usual clichés of teen angst—drug addiction, abortion, bulimia, self-loathing—and the young ensemble of the Inevitable Theatre Company shrieks and howls in ghastly displays of terrible acting, we start wishing for the Sopwith Camel to fly over and strafe the whole lot of them.