Hard candy Christmas
Over the last few years, I've seen David Sedaris -- that little smart-ass -- read his work at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Southern Methodist University, Crossroads Market, and the Dallas Museum of Art. So I don't consider myself just a fan of his, but an enlisted member in his unholy army of the night. We lay in waiting, the hoi polloi unaware of our ranks, prepared to do his hellish bidding when the message is received. But even I must admit that Sedaris will have to expunge some of his sheer, acrid misanthropy if he is to evolve as an artist. Dorothy Parker, whose first-person monologues, such as "The Waltz" and "The Telephone Call," invite favorable comparison to Sedaris' own in-character essays, never did shed hers, and she died pickled and unfulfilled and respected more for her legend than for her canon. Sedaris, who has written cheerfully about drugs and alcohol before, might learn from her slow, fatal tumble.
But for now, Sedaris -- who is half of a playwriting duet known as The Talent Family with his sister Amy (of Comedy Central's Strangers with Candy) -- is just lyrically nasty enough to be bracing. New York director Joe Mantello understood that, just as Parker's monologues remain audition staples to this day, Sedaris' works require little revision to become one-person stage shows to be absconded with by the actor who has the right timing and delivery. Be suspicious of Mantello's "adaptation" credit, because he did damn little with The Santaland Diaries, but you likely will become a believer in Sedaris' ability to construct a brittle and familiar personality using attitude and opinion. His characters eventually betray themselves and thus serve us a buffet of nutritious folly: They're the roles talented actors wet-dream of.
And Theatre for a New Day, its new incarnation debuting under the supervision of Dallas actors Donald Fowler and Jim Hines, acquits itself nicely, if sparely, with The SantaLand Diaries. As directed by Fowler and performed in the Theatre Too! basement space at Theatre Three, two Sedaris stories -- the title one and "Season's Greetings," a reading of a holiday family newsletter that decays before your eyes -- actually benefit from the company's refusal to open up them up beyond anything except a pair of one-person shows. Perhaps sensing that they will attract a significantly gay male demographic, Theatre for a New Day does indulge in some light, audience-interaction bitchery (my hair was the subject of brief, pre-first act fascination by actor Mary Lyons), but that's about all they do to extend these pieces. And it's just enough to make the evening seem like more than a staged reading, yet without trampling the material's solo character strengths. Along with the above-reviewed Christmas at Ground Zero (which contains a brief play written by Donald Fowler), this show represents your best bet to escape hard-candy sentiment and chew on something tastier and truer.
"Season's Greetings" features Mary Lyons as Mrs. Dunbar, a homemaker whose idyllic vision of suburban life has been shattered during the year leading up to the yuletide. Her daughter has married a drug addict and given birth to a probably brain-damaged child, and her husband's Amerasian daughter from his Vietnam War stint returns to claim coquettish ownership of the house. This is one of those Sedaris stories that makes you laugh and wince at the same time: Mrs. Dunbar's classism and racism, presented without hesitation or irony (she does a particularly angry impression of a Vietnamese accent), can be construed as endorsement by the author. But Sedaris eventually allows her to reveal herself as a shallow woman, outraged that her privilege has been intruded upon, and Lyons works the disintegrating-matron thing with skillful zeal. One smashing stage addition to Sedaris' tale by Theatre for a New Day -- Mrs. Dunbar is an alcoholic who slowly gets smashed in front of us as she recounts her hellacious year -- permits Lyons to stagger boldly and hilariously into all kinds of comic recriminations.
The night's second act, "The SantaLand Diaries," stars Jim Hines as Crumpet, a 35-year-old elf whose recent move to New York City has necessitated all manner of humiliating, life-saving jobs -- including a stint as a 35-year-old elf at Macy's during the busiest shopping time of the year. This is perhaps David Sedaris' most famous tale, and any staging will inevitably suffer in comparison to his own National Public Radio performance. Hines still strikes me as an overdetermined performer, a comic actor who thinks that what he's saying is funny before you find it funny yourself. But this tendency doesn't sabotage his performance when he's alone onstage, at least not in this role -- Crumpet is, after all, a North Pole dweller who sits back and judges the menagerie, assured of his own merciless good sense. A certain amount of smugnesss works here, and Hines earns the laughter.
Theatre for a New Day's "The SantaLand Diaries" isn't as shockingly funny as "Season's Greetings," but it also doesn't betray the author's intent to ridicule the false face of Christmas. And that alone makes it an indispensable contribution to the holiday season.
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