Ryan Beil works hard in The Santaland Diaries
By David Sedaris. Adapted by Joe Mantello. Directed by John Murphy. An Arts Club production. At the Revue Stage on Wednesday, November 28. Continues until December 29
John Murphy has directed this show to death.
Way back in 1992, David Sedaris read his essay “The Santaland Diaries” on National Public Radio. Based on his experience working as an elf at Macy’s in New York City, the essay was immediately popular, and it turned out to be Sedaris’s big break: he has since gone on to become a widely read American humourist.
Joe Mantello adapted the essay for the stage. That was probably the first mistake. The material is more observational than theatrical. In an apparent effort to goose it up for performance, Murphy has added more cues and more desperate energy than Santaland can handle: it feels like Murphy is underlining everything that solo performer Ryan Beil says—often several times. When the Sedaris character, whose elf name is Crumpet, refers to Macy’s training manual, “The Elfin Guide”, an image showing “The Elfin Guide for Dummies” pops up in Candelario Andrade’s projection design. Why ruin a perfectly good joke? When Crumpet describes a guy fleeing from Santaland, William Moysey’s sound design allows us to hear his retreating footsteps and, improbably, the squeal of his car as it peels away. And when the narrator describes a little kid peeing in Santa’s lap, we’re treated to the sound of urination. None of this is necessary. Or funny.
And then there’s the orgy of insensitivity, which starts with a problematic passage in the script. Crumpet talks about the day a bunch of retarded people showed up. Retarded is, of course, an offensive word, and it is clearly no compliment when Crumpet says that regular New Yorkers look retarded. The use of this word is a good reason to request permission to change the script or, failing that, to pass on producing it. Instead, Murphy leaps in with both feet. The word retarded and the phrase profoundly retarded appear, and then multiply on the set’s white walls. They swirl. They dance.
Throughout, Beil works like a maniac. Murphy keeps him sweatily busy, wheeling around the minimalist modules of Ted Roberts’s starkly elegant white set. And the director lays in redundant bits of business. Beil is an excellent actor, but going with Murphy’s overall plan, he pours too much energy into his characterizations and vocal tics.
When I read Sedaris in the New Yorker, I hear an eccentric, understated voice, much like the one I found when I looked him up on YouTube. Here, overstatement flattens the humour.
A couple of funny bits survive, including one about menstruating elves. Few passages are long enough to develop any theatrical heft, however, and there’s little sense of accumulation.
Throughout this production, projections mark the slow progression of dates: December 21, December 22. As with the real month of December, I thought this theatrical month would never end.