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Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

The Master's Voice



The SantaLand Diaries

Roadworks Productions and About Face Theatre

Revenge of the Killer Fat Girl: A Christmas Story

How Now Theater

at the European Repertory Company

By Jack Helbig

Ifirst saw David Sedaris perform in 1985, in David Hauptschein's Spoken Word Cafe. Reading comical entries from the preposterously large ledger he purportedly used as a diary, the elfin Sedaris was clearly on to something. It wasn't just that his observations about life in Chicago were pointed and funny; he knew exactly the right tone to use when reading his words--or rather the right tones, because Sedaris is a master of sending two often contradictory messages at once. His energetic tenor, with its tincture of southern drawl, sounded kind and even a little courtly, but slithering around his honey-coated diphthongs was another Sedaris--the envious, judgmental, rebellious, easily angered Sedaris, who leapt out at punch lines, usually taking us by surprise.

The heart of Sedaris's performances was his voice, because physically he did little more than turn pages--though once he became comfortable onstage he would look up from his words every now and then. This feature of his work remained a constant throughout the late 80s and early 90s, when he honed his act at venues like Club Lower Links and in Milly's Orchid Show. His writing may have become tighter, and the range and number of duplicitous narrators may have increased, but it was always Sedaris's voice that sold his stories. Just as it was his voice that made him a national star when he first appeared on NPR--on WBEZ's The Wild Room and, later, on the nationally syndicated news show Morning Edition.

The challenge for anyone performing Sedaris's pieces lies in the fact that they were written to be read aloud by him. The SantaLand Diaries, an adaptation of two of his most Christmassy pieces for the stage, offers two very different interpretations of Sedaris's material.

Melissa Culverwell in the short story "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!" pretty much tosses Sedaris out the window, attempting the much nobler task of making the monologue her own. The story takes the form of one of those dopey Christmas newsletters, which in this case details the outrageous problems besetting a rather humdrum middle-class family when dad's 22-year-old illegitimate daughter comes from Vietnam to stay with them. Narrated by the family's narrow-minded matriarch, Jocelyn Dunbar, the monologue is a natural jumping-off point for a fully living, breathing character.

And Culverwell succeeds admirably at making the put-upon Mrs. Dunbar her own. She's nothing like the brittle, Eve Arden-ish hausfrau I always pictured when I heard Sedaris read the story--she's considerably more sympathetic, even likable at times. Unfortunately, Culverwell is not well served by director Greg Copeland, who should have curbed her tendency to overplay Sedaris's comedy. He has a very subversive wit, and the jokes in this story work best when they're quietly snarled through the frozen smile of a repressed Martha Stewart wannabe. Culverwell delivers Sedaris's punch lines too loudly and clearly, without the multiple tones he uses, taking much of the zing out of his humor.

By contrast Lance Baker, directed by Shade Murray, is more slavishly faithful to Sedaris in performing his celebrated first-person essay "The SantaLand Diaries," which transformed Sedaris into a national celebrity when he first performed it on Morning Edition. Not that Baker attempts a mere stage photocopy of Sedaris. Himself an elfin actor in the David Hyde Pierce mold, he follows Sedaris's lead but creates his own version of the writer's bitchy wit as he describes signing up for the most humiliating holiday job around, as one of the elves in Macy's SantaLand. The resulting character, half Baker and half Sedaris, is almost as winning as Sedaris himself as he gets revenge by spilling all the dark secrets behind the fake snow and tinsel.

There were a few times, especially early on, when Baker's voice seemed too confident and his self-esteem too high for Sedaris's weasel-boy narrator. But as the evening progressed he settled into the role, and by the end he was getting laughs with lines I thought only Sedaris could make funny. The only false note comes from the needlessly sentimental ending that adapter Joe Mantello has pasted onto Sedaris's otherwise acid take on Christmas. Only a dolt would think you need to add a possibly real Saint Nick to hopelessly phony SantaLand. But happily Baker's mastery of Sedaris's pointed wit allows him to deliver this nauseating section with enough sugarcoated poison to make it seem a bitter pill rather than the treacle it really is.

Moses Moe--who wrote the book, lyrics, and music for Revenge of the Killer Fat Girl: A Christmas Story--proves in this pair of musical one-acts that he has as dark and dismal a view of humanity and New York City as David Sedaris. The first one-act, I Was Like 'Wow,' is an autobiographical piece wittily charting Moe's slow descent into depression while trying to make it in the Big Apple. "If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere," one of Moe's sadistic inner voices sings to him after he's fled the city for the safety of his Iowa home.

I Was Like 'Wow' could easily have become a self-indulgent one-man show. But thankfully Moe is more creative than that, mocking his own artistic pretensions and heightening the comedy of his heartbreaking tale to an almost Charles Ludlam-esque pitch by dividing his story among three competing Moes, one of them a woman. The tall, comically gawky Sean Judge relates Moe's various artistic failures--a theater troupe that went belly-up, a film production company that lost millions for Moe's friends and family--while the physically attractive Eric C. Johnson recounts Moe's various strikeouts in the world of love. Blond, blue-eyed Megan Gogerty is the Moe who attends a men's-

movement camp, where everyone is taught the importance of being able to piss standing up.

About two-thirds of the way through the piece, Moe's comic choices--including his seemingly flip decision to divide himself in three--become poignant when the narrator suffers a nervous breakdown. Suddenly the kooky, over-the-top view of Manhattan he's constructed becomes the world as he sees it from rock bottom, where his soul has crash-landed. And Moe's ability to flip from comedy to tragedy speaks volumes about his talent as a writer: apparently he's honed his craft since fluttering back wounded to the midwest.

The second play--a campy, mean-spirited Christmas musical called Revenge of the Killer Fat Girl--is about a pair of misfits, a half-crazed creator of subliminal tapes and the much mocked title character, whose lives intersect one bloody Christmas Eve. Though it never quite reaches the comic heights or sublime depths of I Was Like 'Wow,' Revenge is funny, even very funny as Gogerty and Moe have directed it. James Thorn is especially killing as the story's laconic narrator. But after the soul-baring honesty of Wow, Revenge seems just a bit of silly fluff. Moe should have flipped the two plays and given us our vengeful dessert first.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The SantaLand Diaries still by Phil M. Kohlmetz.

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