For ten years, Gary Culig starred in The Santaland Diaries — a one-man, one-act play based on an essay by David Sedaris — at the Bug Theatre, but last December he delivered his final performance here and toddled back to New York. Now the Boulder Ensemble has taken up the cause: same words, same general intention — to bring a little caustic humor to the season’s slew of treacle-sweet offerings — but to very different effect.
Sedaris’s essay describes the Christmas season when he was an out-of-work actor working as an elf called Crumpet at Macy’s. He communicates the humiliation of wearing the red bobbled hat, striped stockings and pointy shoes. He describes the inane orientation session and his fellow elves — one of whom wants to know if she can work as an elf year-round; Snowball, who’s seductive toward elves and Santas alike; and the woman who’s an artist and whose art consists of sticking human hair onto radios and clocks, one of which she offers to sell to Crumpet for three hundred dollars. The Santas are as varied a lot as you’d expect, from the fellow who gets the kids on and off his lap in a few seconds flat with three or four well-rehearsed sentences to the one who spits copiously as he talks. When a child asks, “Santa, why are you spitting on me?,” he explains that what she’s feeling isn’t spit, but frost flying from his beard. The most lacerating bits, however — the funniest, saddest and truest — concern the public at large. Puzzled children and terrified children. Children bullied and slapped by parents: “Goddamn it, Rachel, get on that man’s lap and smile or I’ll give you something to cry about,” yells one mother, furiously shaking her little girl. Then there’s the child prompted by his mother to ask Santa about animals being tortured and the four-year-old instructed to pee on one of Macy’s snowbanks. The show isn’t PC — there’s a crack about retarded kids (yup, Sedaris uses the word), an unsentimental comment about the “sick and deformed,” and a joke about blood in the elfwomen’s knickers. (I can’t help feeling that Denver audiences took these jibes more easily in stride than the gentler, richer, softer-spirited and more thoroughly psychoanalyzed audience in Boulder, but that might be my imagination.)
Geoffrey Kent is a very different piece of Crumpet than Culig. Where Culig was the clever, sardonic little guy, somewhat dour, somewhat fey, put upon and driven a touch crazy by the frenetic, synthetic jolliness all around him, Kent is very much in charge of the situation. Talented and leading-man handsome, with a big voice and presence, he booms some of the lines, throws himself on the floor to impersonate a tantruming infant, and twinkles relentlessly at the audience. You and I know how ridiculous this is, he seems to tell us, even as David/Crumpet winces at the humiliations he’s enduring. The result is paradoxically less high-octane funny. Kent and director Rebecca Remaly also draw out this slight hour-long piece to almost an hour and a half — at which point the central joke seems far less humorous and the feelingful bits a little too earnest. There’s no profound subtext to Santaland, but there is a strain of melancholy, a cynical comprehension of the way stupidity and venality mingle with just the briefest moments of actual human compassion in this strangest of all seasons. That’s the part that’s missing from this glistening, high-energy and still pretty amusing production.