Ho Ho Ho! Oh No!

Christmas turns darkly comic in LTW's 'The Santaland Diaries'

Hold on to your holly berries, folks: The holiday season is officially upon us.

If you're looking for a little festive entertainment that doesn't traffic in dancing nutcrackers or miraculously repentant old misers, then put down that turkey and pay a visit to The Santaland Diaries and Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!, now playing at Live Theatre Workshop.

The show consists of two comic monologues, developed from the writing of memoirist David Sedaris by Joe Mantello (best known as the director of Broadway's Wicked).

In Santaland, the first act, David (Christopher Johnson) recounts his misadventures working as an elf at Macy's in New York. In the second act, Season's Greetings, busy homemaker Jocelyn Dunbar (Kristi Loera) narrates her family's Christmas letter. She's full of relentless Christmas cheer even as she reveals family scandals and tragedies.

At each corner of the Live Theatre Workshop stage, scenic designers Richard and Amanda Gremel have piled mounds of gaudily wrapped presents. Upstage center is a small Christmas tree crammed with lights, ornaments and tinsel, and racing around it is a toy Christmas train—the sort that toots its horn every 30 seconds or so, and usually ends up with its batteries removed just minutes after coming out of the box.

It's a minimal setting, but something about that ceaseless chugging and tooting, crashing up against the Christmas carols being piped in over the speakers, perfectly signifies the manic energy that can overtake the holidays. When Johnson enters, stares irritably at the train and kicks it over, he wins cheers, because secretly, we (well, most of us, anyway) wanted to do the same thing.

Of course, Johnson is a tall man dressed as a Christmas elf, and he's kicking that little train with a red vinyl shoe that curls up to a point with a pompon on it. And that is what the play is about—the struggle to fit our desires for Christmas magic around the mundane reality of daily life.

Johnson's David is a young man who has recently moved to New York with the dream of acting in a soap opera. David initially laughs when he discovers an ad in the paper for seasonal employment as a Macy's Christmas elf. But he's jobless, and he figures anything is better than standing on a street corner dressed as a taco, so he soon finds himself explaining to his potential employer why he aspires to be an elf.

The story is based on Sedaris' own experiences, and David comes across as an island of sarcastic sanity in a hurricane of human nature run amok. As the days 'til Christmas count down, he reveals both the magic of the store's Santaland—the maze, the tree, the little cottages where children visit one of the many Santas—and the grim reality: the "vomit corner" and the "Oh, God" spot where parents first glimpse how long the line is.

Johnson may play only one character, but that character happens to enjoy doing impressions of the idiots he meets. Johnson is a hoot as he transforms himself into chain-smoking supervisors, flirtatious co-workers, bubble-headed children and parents seemingly determined to terrorize their kids into having a good time.

When, toward the end of the act, a bit of real Christmas magic may actually be happening, he wisely chooses to underplay it. It provides a little twinge of mystery without becoming sentimental.

Christmas miracles are hard to find in the second act. Jocelyn Dunbar, with her Martha Stewart hair and holiday apron, keeps busy mailing Christmas cards, baking gingerbread men and having a little drink (or five) as she cheerfully relates her family's trials (figurative and literal) over the past year.

Those trials include the problems of wayward daughter Jacki, who left home to be with her tattooed boyfriend, only to be abandoned by him after giving birth to a disabled child. Even more galling for Jocelyn is the arrival of Khe Sahn, a child her husband fathered as a soldier in Vietnam, and who has apparently been living as a prostitute.

As Jocelyn, Loera is something of a Christmas nightmare. She is relentlessly upbeat, laughing and smiling while clearly communicating the dark storm of pain and anger at her core. You want to feel sorry for her, yet her behavior and attitudes beneath the cheer are so shocking that it's difficult to like her.

Loera pulls no punches in her performance, and fuels the comedy of her monologue by giving acts of racism and violence no more weight than boasts about her kids' report cards.

David and Jocelyn are opposite sides of the same coin, in a way. David is the detached, ironic observer of Christmas, giving voice to your most sarcastic, unspoken thoughts. Jocelyn throws herself into the TV-perfect, handcrafted trappings of traditional Christmas, but without the joy that is supposed to accompany the holiday.

Director Michael Martinez has wisely steered his actors away from imitating Sedaris' trademark high voice and deadpan delivery. Instead, they've created characters tailored to their own strengths. Johnson and Loera bring a warmth and broad comic delivery to their roles that, while a far cry from Sedaris' dry wit, easily earn gales of laughter.

What's interesting about these two anti-romantic portrayals of the holidays is that Christmas itself emerges pretty much unscathed—it's the people who celebrate it who are crazy. The Santaland Diaries and Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!! is just the excuse you need to put off hanging those lights, decking those halls or glazing that perfectly garnished, clove-studded ham.

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