'SantaLand Diaries': A holiday in tights

Humorist's experience as a Macy's elf comes to the stage

Posted: Thursday, November 25, 2004

Well-acquainted with the humor writing of David Sedaris, Juneau attorney, actor and arts advocate Ben Brown set about securing himself the lone role in the one-man play "The SantaLand Diaries" as soon as he read the script.

"I really liked it, I really like him as a writer, and as soon as I read the script, I thought, 'God, I would like to do this,' " Brown said. "It looked like a lot of fun, and I think I'm well suited to it."

"SantaLand" plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 26-27 and Dec. 3-4, and 6 p.m. Sundays, Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, on Perseverance Theatre's Second Stage, in the building's Phoenix Room. Seating is limited, and all performances are pay-as-you-can. The audience should arrive early, and parents are advised not to bring children younger than 12.

The story is a true account of Sedaris' experience as a holiday elf at the New York City department store Macy's. Clad in a yellow turtleneck, green smock and ridiculous red and white tights, he spends his time observing over-anxious consumers and his fellow elves - some bitter, some far too excited.

Broadway director and playwright Joe Mantello adapted Sedaris' script for the original production of the play at the Atlantic Theatre in New York.

"The cuts made by Joe Mantello don't diminish the David Sedaris humor quotient at all," Brown said. "A lot of people think that Sedaris performed this and he didn't. He's not really a stage actor. He's a monologuist, at most. More like Spalding Gray than Jerry Seinfield."

You don't have to push this text at all. The text really speaks for itself, and that was a choice we made early on.

Sarah Denhardt

Guest director

Guest director Sarah Denhardt is in town from Washington, D.C. She and Brown have split the story into 20 scenes in order to make the text more easily memorized.

"You don't have to push this text at all," Denhardt said. "The text really speaks for itself, and that was a choice we made early on. You listen to him, and it really is a man on the street noticing these things, these people and the humor that comes out of them. (The actor) doesn't have to make it funny."

This is Brown's first one-man play in the roughly 30 roles of his acting career. The only thing close was a take as Peter, a potential suicide in the Paul Elliott comedy "Ledge, Ledger and the Legend." That was in high school.

Brown has never worked as a elf at Macy's either, though he has worked as a clerk at a comic book shop and a guide at the Palmer visitors center.

"What you end up doing in a play like this is reacting to yourself," Brown said. "The way you learn the lines and work through it, you kind of have to focus and reflect off yourself. You have to be in the moment, even if you're the only one there. You're still telling stories that involved a lot of different people, and that gives it a level as if it's being performed by several different actors."

Denhardt was invited to direct the play by Perseverance Artistic Director PJ Paparelli, whom she has known for about five years. She's finishing her master's degree at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where Perseverance founder Molly Smith studied as an undergraduate. The school's graduate student association helped fund Denhardt's trip to Juneau.

"I've always wanted to go to Alaska, and Perseverance most definitely has a national reputation for its work," she said.

"I had never heard (Sedaris) and had never read him when PJ called me," she said. "A couple days later I found the script and it was hysterical. I was reading on the Metro (the D.C. public transit system) and laughing out loud."

"SantaLand Diaries" could be considered Sedaris' big break. He read excerpts from the story on National Public Radio in 1992 and was soon offered a book contract. Three autobiographical books followed - "Holidays on Ice," "Barrel Fever" and "Naked" -and he became a regular on NPR's "This American Life." His fourth book, "Me Talk Pretty One Day," won the 2001 James Thurber Prize for humor. And in 2001, he was Time's Humorist of the Year.

His books often are filled with vain, hilarious indulgences of his own obsessions, pointed observations of others, and true tales of his own upbringing as one of six children. His brother, Paul, is a floor buffer known as "the Rooster." His sister, Amy, is an actress, comedian and writer. Her series, "Strangers With Candy," ran for a few seasons on Comedy Central, and she writes plays with David under the name "The Talent Family."

Sedaris' stint at Macy's was one of the odd jobs he supported himself with in New York City before finding acclaim as a writer. He now lives in France.

SantaLand "is not a spoof," Brown said. "He's a diarist. He recognizes there's this huge demand for the icons of Christmas, for Santa, for elves, for the winter wonderland in which they reside," he said. "What does that demand for that fantasy land say about people? And what does their behavior really say about them? I think David Sedaris recognizes that people are complex, multi-faceted creatures, and no one's all bad or all good. There are some amazingly bad and good thing about all people, and he likes to shine a pretty bright flashlight on those."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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