Directed by Michael Matthews, The Santaland Diaries creates an immensely enjoyable and hilarious one-man play experience. In its fourth year of production by the Blank Theatre, the play is an adapted version of David Sedaris’ essay of the same name first read on NPR 20 years ago. Paolo Andino, who is perfectly suited for the role, returns for a second year as David (or Crumpet, his elf-name), a struggling writer who recently moved to New York City and is in desperate need of a job, even if it’s a ridiculous one: an elf at Macy’s Santaland.
Since he is the only actor in the piece, the play hinges on Andino’s performance, and he remains highly believable and completely over-the-top — but in a good way. Because of the absence of performers, audience members become characters in the narrative. Andino continually breaks the fourth wall and interacts with members of the audience when referring to other characters.
At some shows, he even brings audience members onstage and treats them as if they were children waiting to see Santa. This whole bit could easily be cringe-inducing and embarrassing, but Andino remains charming and possesses a keen ability to make volunteers feel comfortable and daring onstage. Needless to say, such spontaneous occurrences are the highlights of the show.
Since audience participation is such a big part of the performance, the play differs slightly from night to night. Still, Andino, as a great improviser, feeds off the energy and reactions of the audience. Moreover, the small theater makes the experience feel very intimate, and viewers get the impression that Andino makes eye contact with every single person in the audience.
The juxtaposition of David’s irreverence and cynicism with the enthusiasm and self-importance of many of the people around him adds gut-bustingly funny elements to The Santaland Diaries. He never takes his job seriously, and the comedy enhances the absurdity through the breaking down and demystification of the department store Santa in his (un)natural, commercial habitat.
Andino is highly entertaining in his extremely specific portrayals of the small characters in the play. He employs unique mannerisms and ways of speaking that immediately bring the characters to life, though they’re all played by the same person. Viewers can feel each person’s history and understand exactly who they are based solely on how Andino stands and talks as he embodies each of them; he superbly balances these big impressions with David’s dry disbelieving nature.
David also deals with crazy parents who care more about their own agendas than their children’s experience of visiting Santa, either by forcing them to say that what they want for Christmas is for Procter & Gamble to stop torturing animals, or by controllingly directing photographs with Santa. David also has to interact with many different kinds of Santas, including one deeply frightening and borderline insane Santa who stays in character even when no one else is around and forces David to sing Christmas carols even when the children don’t want him to. This interaction leads to an amazingly bizarre rendition of “Away in a Manger” in the voice of a demented Billie Holiday — another high point of the show.
Throughout all of this, what sustains David is a sense of superiority, paychecks and the fact that some of his fellow elves and Santas can share stories with him about their experiences working on One Life to Live, apparently his favorite TV show and dream job. The fact that Andino had a recurring role on the show adds to the humor of David’s extraordinarily detailed imaginings of what it would be like to work on One Life to Live.
David views most of what happens throughout the play as extremely superficial. The associations and situations he confronts every day are something to deride and ridicule. And to be fair, they are ridiculous. Santaland seems to magnify the workers’ insanities. At the end of the play, however, David works with a Santa he’s never met before, one who doesn’t seem to have a real name and who elevates the proceedings to something spiritual. He never once asks what a child wants for Christmas — such material things are unimportant. He instead focuses on the child’s relationship with his or her parents and how loving and fulfilling this relationship is.
Parents cry tears of joy, and for the first time in his life David feels like a good person, if only by association. Here, The Santaland Diaries offers a stereotypical message of “the true meaning of Christmas.” It’s trite, but it works.
This is especially true given that David’s relationship with the “real” Santa creates the first genuine experience he has in Santaland. It’s the first time people leave Santa’s house grateful, not frustrated or angry. It’s the first time neither he nor his Santa are lying to their patrons. It’s David’s job to lie to people, to pretend everything is merry and beautiful, so this real and unfamiliar experience throws him for a loop — but an admittedly good one. We see another side to David’s character here, a deeper, more human side that doesn’t have to make jokes just to get through the day. By the end of the play he’s not just a snarky and entertaining man-elf. Similar to the way audiences glows with innocent joy from watching The Santaland Diaries, David walks away as a purveyor of the holiday spirit.
The Santaland Diaries runs through Dec. 16 at The Stella Adler Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.