Friday, November 30, 2012

The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris adapted by Joe Mantello

Paolo Andino - Photo by Evan Martin

By Joe Straw

My daughters love “funny”.  They love to laugh.  I saw The Santaland Diaries a couple of years ago and I thought:  Why not bring the girls?   It’s full of Christmas cheer and has an elf running around all over a department store with thousands of lunatic parents and their well-behaved kids.  What’s not funny about that?

Parking across the street underneath the Dolby Theater is a trip and coming up the escalator, one meets all kinds of people from all over the world.  My oldest daughter prohibits me from speaking to Japanese people because: “My accent is third grade”, she says.  

But, when walking out to Hollywood Boulevard, well this is just another level of excitement, and is quite another story altogether. The sidewalks are filled with all kinds of people, exotic entertainers, dancers, street vendors, and people banging on drums (in almost a circle) all in a little stretch of the boulevard before one even gets to Highland Avenue.  And by the time I’ve hustled my kids (one who continually walks off in the opposite direction as the rest of us), I’ve wished for the solace of a nice quiet theatre with one raging elf in a frantic department store. 

A gentleman opens the door as we enter The Stellar Adler Theatre.  We walk up a long quiet flight of stairs and enter a place of solemnity, because it is early and that is the best time to arrive to theatre while I Twitter, Facebook, and make a few notes about the show.

The Blank Theatre, Daniel Henning Founding Artistic Director and Noah Wyle Artistic Producer, presents The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, Adapted by Joe Mantello and directed by Michael Matthews starring Paolo Andino as Crumpet The Elf.

(All brought to you by Crispin Natural Hard Apple Cider, all gluten-free for the wheat-intolerant.) I must admit it was a refreshing drink before the start of the show and a prop that was used effectively throughout the night with toasts to our gracious sponsors who were in the audience this night.    

I guess we can safely assume, for the beginning of the play, that Paolo Andino is playing David Sedaris, a self-deprecating humorist.   After all, he is the one who wrote The Santaland Diaries.

As the play starts, David is off the boat (Penn Station) hoping to write for a soap opera.

Those dreams die quickly.

And things are getting a little tight on the cold streets of New York City when he runs across a want ad to be an elf at Macy’s.

It’s not a job he desires but the streets are frosty and food is getting scarce.

“I am a thirty-three-year-old man applying for a job as an elf.” – Crumpet

But applying for a job as an Elf doesn’t mean you’re automatically in.  There is an interviewing process, it is lengthy, and they have to separate the sociopaths from those truly wanting to be sane elves.

David makes the cut despite the stems and roaches in his urine.

“On a busy day twenty-two thousand people come to visit Santa, and I was told that it is an elf’s lot to remain merry in the face of torment and adversity.” – Crumpet

Crumpet has major reservations being a happy elf. The former elves, in teaching mode, makes him sick to his stomach.  First of all, there is elf school to learn to be an elf.   And you must have an emotional commitment to the role and the work. And don’t think because you’re an elf that’s the only role you have.  There’s not just one type of elf. 

“You can be an entrance elf, a water-cooler elf, a bridge elf, train elf, maze elf, island elf, Magic-window elf, usher elf, cash-register elf or exit elf.”

It doesn’t get any better than an elf trying to understand the working complexities of a cash register but this is what elves do despite their learning disabilities. Crumpet’s inability to learn his code has the other elves sneering at him.   His elf brain is being taxed beyond his human capacity.  

The outward elf costume becomes a matter of indifference to Crumpet (still not into his job). But once he dons the costume, the candy cane tights, the pants with the fluffy white thing around the calf, pointy shoes, red, yellow, and green jacket, and the hat with the fuzzy bell, well, it’s enough to make a grown man puke.  (Vamoose!)

But Crumpet slowly settles into his work.  Not all moments are fun and games at Macy’s.  There is a day that showcases the true meaning of Christmas, “Operation Special Children”, where a morning is set-aside for the terribly sick and deformed children.

“The next one is missing a nose or Crystal has third-degree burns covering (pause and looking back) 90 percent of her body.” - Crumpet

Also, Crumpet has to learn how to sign to those children who cannot hear.  (And for some reason both of my girls just lit up like a Christmas tree and it was obvious they were with Crumpet, all the way.)

Crumpet has a problem with being an elf, and learns a lot from the various types of Santas, but in the end he understands the true meaning of Christmas in a way that David Sedaris could only explain to you.   

Paolo Andino - Photo by Evan Martin

Paolo Andino, playing Crumpet, is an amazing actor and wonderful in this role.   He is very elf like and moves about with specific dexterity. Elves float, or so did this one.  Starting with his arms out stretched and his back bent to the floor, little glove-like wings, flapping up, up, and up to the sky did little Crumpet fly.  Not sure of the reason, just thought it was a good action.  Maybe Crumpet was taking a breath from the turmoil and not a bad action on stage. (But, let’s see the build, Crumpet!)  Crumpet is the center of his universe and fortunately very aware of everything outside his natural being. Andino is an actor with enormous talent and is willing to throw himself all over the stage to make us laugh. Crumpet is nice when he wants to be, and an insidious evil elf when the occasion arises, and it does. Andino is magnificent!

I saw this play two years ago and this version of Michael Matthews directed play is a lot funnier and works in remarkable ways.  I believe part of it is his growth.  Matthews works a lot.  Every time I turn around, he’s working on something else and the work keeps getting better and better. Matthews moved Crumpet to every part of that stage without a wasted movement and had us hollering with laughter throughout the night.

Joe Mantello does an excellent job adapting David Sedaris's autobiographical essay into the very funny play which was throughly enjoyed by the audience this night. 

I loved the Set Design by Sean Vasquez.  It was so warm, playful with a slightly cartoonish look, and a lot of fun.  Very Christmacy!

Also, I am thankful I got to share this with my girls. This is a night I will carry with me forever.

Other members of this delightful show are:

Daniel Henning, Matthew Graber, Noah Wyle – Producers
Monica Chereches, AJ Jones, Ashley Key, Evan Martin, Stephen Moffat, Jason Weiss – Associate Producers
Tim Swiss – Lighting Design
Warren Davis – Sound Design
Michael Mullen – Costume Design
Sarah A. Bauer – Stage Manager
Sean Lewellyn, Gabe Holguin – Carpentry
Scott David, Erica Silverman – Casting
Ken Werther Publicity – Public Relations.

Run!  And bring someone who likes to wear green pointy shoes with shiny bells on the tips.

Through December 16, 2012

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