I discovered David Sedaris via a wickedly funny monologue on NPR about working as an elf at Macy’s in New York City. When The Santaland Diaries became a theater piece a decade ago, I was entertained, especially if a good actor took it on.
Unfortunately, the piece is typically paired with Sedaris’ very cynical Season’s Greetings, a show done in drag. The story of a dysfunctional suburban family whose thin veneer of holiday cheer is shredded by the arrival of a young Vietnamese woman (illegitimately fathered 22 years earlier) is so dark that it’s always turned me off. More than once, I’ve skipped the shows.
This year I wanted to see Joshua Steele, a talented local actor, play both roles in this adults-only holiday piece. New Edgecliff Theatre has staged the show before, but this is Steele’s first outing, and the production has been newly directed by Jim Stump. Steele’s Crumpet is the elf for the job (pictured), a skinny, frizzy-haired guy in a silly, green velvet costume with curly pointed shoes.
Santaland is a series of brief sketches and takes on Sedaris’ real experiences. Some are devastatingly wicked (his Billie Holiday version of “Away in a Manger” is memorable), others are sadly wise. One is actually heartwarming. Steele has a real vocal and physical talent, amusing as the deadpan narrator, sometimes shifting voices as he plays visitors, fellow elves and oddball Santas. Gion DeFrancesco’s set uses four cartoonish Christmas trees with Santa photos on the reverse.
I still didn’t like the still nasty Season’s Greetings, but I was hooked by Steele’s transformation into the prissy, suburban bigot. Wearing a blonde wig, big glasses and a kitschy Christmas vest and skirt, he pitches his voice higher and takes on several prissy but fake mannerisms. His accomplished acting made the evening worthwhile.
THE SANTALAND DIARIES and SEASON'S GREETINGS, presented by New Edgecliff Theatre at Columbia Performance Center in Columbia-Tusculum, continue through Dec. 18. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.