Santa's Little Misanthrope

Santaland Diaries proves hell is other people (laughing at a bad play)

A funny thing happened to me as I was watching David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries at American Stage: I didn't laugh. OK, maybe I laughed once or twice, but that hardly counts, since the audience around me seemed to be hanging on every word, responding generously to every joke, and occasionally roaring its approval.

After the show was over, disturbed at my impassivity, I decided to read the script, which had been courteously furnished to me by those nice people on Third Street S. And the result was: I didn't laugh. Not that the tale Sedaris tells isn't comic — it surely is, in its limited way. But his tale of his experience as an elf in Macy's Santaland seems at best to merit a knowing smile; at worst it seems repetitive, predictable and, on more than one occasion, mean-spirited.

Predictable, most of all: this is a department-store-Santa routine that details all the mishaps you'd inevitably foresee: the unruly children, excitable parents, inappropriate Santas and uncomprehending store managers. We hear a lot about the tribulations of the elves who support Santa, and we discover that for Sedaris, hell is management, customers, parents and children, other elves. This is the key to the script's weakness: hell is always the other. Then, once it's been demonstrated that everyone but Sedaris is a moron, the author sings an ode to the one Santa who embodies the True Spirit of Christmas, finally proving that he, Sedaris, though arrogant and resentful on the surface, has really got a Heart of Gold.

Anyway, by the time I'd finished my reading, I knew why I'd been so unmoved by the live performance: This is no conventional comedy; it's a manipulative, self-serving screed. What's amazing is that its misanthropy almost goes unnoticed.

As for the show's one actor, Brendan Boyd — well, he doesn't help very much. Boyd is at his funniest when he comes across as a victim, just another poor shmo who, like the rest of us, gets into uncomfortable situations — for instance, when he first has to put on his ridiculous elf's costume. But this is hardly Boyd's characteristic stance; more often he comes across as superior, angry, disgusted at the humanity around him. It's not a terribly comic combination (though it can be when mocked, as is proud Malvolio in Twelfth Night). Wendy Leigh's direction fails to render Boyd sympathetic, though Leigh otherwise makes good use of the American Stage playing area.

The other production elements work nicely: Alan Loyd's set design, incorporating a giant candy cane, multiple Christmas trees, and a red velvet throne for an unseen Santa, is an unqualified success. And Lane Fragomeli's red, green and yellow elf costume deserves all the laughter it gets.

Which brings me back to my starting point: the magnanimity of the audience on the evening I saw the show. What was the actual cause of so much merriment?

Let's call it the ticket-buyer's desire to have bought the right ticket. Or let's call it holiday spirit.

It surely can't have been these petty, haughty, contemptuous Diaries.

A New Gay Theater. Gypsy Productions is a new theater company in St. Petersburg, dedicated to bringing gay-themed plays to area audiences. The brainchild of artistic director Trevor Keller, Gypsy was formed to continue the work of Central Stage Theatre, which ceased operations last February after the death of its founder Brett Lassiter. Gypsy already has a full season planned for production at the Suncoast Theatre, located at the Suncoast Resort on U.S. 19. Included are Martin Sherman's Bent, about gays in the Holocaust; Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, a gay version of the New Testament; and other plays looking at gay life from Ancient Egypt to present-day Greenwich Village.

David Parr's Slap & Tickle is Gypsy's first production, and if one can draw any conclusions from a single show, this theater company is going to be unapologetically explicit in its depictions of gay sexual experience. Set in a New York bathhouse, and utilizing six actors in 36 parts, Slap & Tickle might be subtitled "Varieties of Gay Sex." Interweaving bits and pieces of memoir from its many characters, the play candidly describes oral and anal sex, sex with strangers, sex in groups, homosexual seduction and rape, fetishism, body piercing, first kisses and a celebrated public indecency arrest. New characters are introduced by a narrator/doorman who tells us, among other things, name, age and "top" or "bottom." A character in drag known as Lady Di defines terms: poppers, felching, guiche, gag reflex. And mixed in all the individual confessions are a brief history of gay bathhouses, notes on etiquette in the AIDS era and memories of the old days when a colored handkerchief in the right or left, front or back pocket quietly signaled one's preferred sex act.

The acting in the production is consistently good. Daniel J. Harris, Joseph Alan Johnson, Larry Buzzeo, Donald Dupree, Jeffery Kin and John Russo couldn't be more convincing as they make their confessions, cruise one another and wander off in couples to a changing room ("portrait") or cabin ("landscape"). Trevor Keller's fine direction creates a kaleidoscope effect as the actors move in an out of focus, and Bill Booth's lighting helpfully isolates particular confessions. Christopher Brill's set is too rudimentary, though — a couple of benches, two screens and a centerpiece of what looks like plywood, plus two areas representing showers and footlockers. Costumes mostly consist of towels; there are brief flashes of nudity, but they never seem gratuitous.

Slap & Tickle is hardly a comprehensive portrait of gay life: there's very little said about long-term relationships, and the emphasis on anonymous encounters can easily lend itself to distortion. Still, this is a daringly honest first entry by a new theater company, and easily lives up to the Gypsy mission statement: "To present new and provocative pieces of theater not normally seen on the Gulf Coast/St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay region."

In other words: gay experience will no longer be mostly ignored by area theater.

If that means more challenging plays on a wider range of subjects, then all audiences — gay and straight both — should benefit.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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