Syracuse Stage has set out to beat David Sedaris at his own game. While the raucous Godspell roars away next door at the Archbold Theater, we have a quiet chamber piece, a 110-minute monologue, in the smaller Storch Theater. Two contrasting Christmas shows running side-by-side is another innovation of the Tim Bond era. The new Godspell is so transmogrified that the original 1971 audiences would not recognize this incarnation. The Santaland Dairies, on the other hand, has become far more of a stage-filling enterprise than the youthful Sedaris ever could have imagined. There are laughs here Sedaris could not pull off himself.
Familiarity was the first dragon director Wendy Knox and actor Wade McCollum had to slay. Ever since the first National Public Radio broadcast of Santaland burst upon the nation on Dec. 23, 1992, we have all come to know the entire narrative of this mordant counterpart to A Christmas Carol. Jerome, the snarky black Santa, is as easily recognizable as Marley’s ghost. The printed version, really a thick pamphlet, was a huge seller, but even more people know the story from Sedaris’ recording, one of the phenomena of the recorded book industry. As you read these words thousands of our fellow citizens are listening to Sedaris’ distinctive nasal whine from recordings in their dashboard, or hearing new stuff on This American Life. There has never been anything quite like him, and he can pack any house any time he comes to Syracuse, as he is doing this week. (See next page.)
Confessions of a window washer: Wade McCollum in Syracuse Stage’s The Santaland Diaries. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Before his breakthrough, Sedaris looked to most people, starting with his family, to be a hopeless, unemployable loser, which is why he applied to be a Macy’s elf at age 33. The only thing he was good at was cleaning houses: He did windows. And he also kept a diary, which has prescribed the literary form of all his later writing. With the help of his sister Amy, an accomplished actress cited in Santaland, Sedaris started reading his material in a Chicago coffeehouse, where he was heard by some executives from NPR. They aired the narrative early in the day, which caused such a reaction as to burn up the switchboard (this was before the rise of e-mail). Before the day was over, literally by heated public demand, Santaland was broadcast a second time. And Chicago lost a great window cleaner.
Knox and McCollum make you forget the sound of Sedaris’ voice, which is about as daunting as making you forget the voice of George W. Bush or David Letterman. McCollum has prepared by performing Shakespeare and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Dr. Frank N. Furter), and he’s shown stamina for one-man shows such as I Am My Own Wife and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He speaks with open vowels and rounded diphthongs and yet retains the flip raciness of the street. Sedaris’ tell-tale gay intonation has been erased in favor of a kind of light absurdity, existential angst with a shrug. At the same time McCollum can quickly conjure up an edge. He is angrier with bullies and miscreants than Sedaris is.
McCollum’s talent alone gives him advantages over the window cleaner. When the narrator recounts that Macy’s interrogates job applicants with humiliating questions about their deep desires to be department-store elves and wear crappy uniforms in front of children, one deluded sweet thing warbles in valley girl-speak about how it’s like acting on a role. Opening-night audiences almost broke into applause at that, sensing that McCollum had been pacing himself against the author. Even stronger is the crooning of “Away in a Manger” in the style of Billie Holliday, one of Sedaris’ proudest specialties.
Elsewhere it is director Knox’s hand that makes a difference. After all, other talented regional performers, including Joey Panek of Syracuse and Karl Gregory of Ithaca, have already remade The Santaland Diaries in their own voices. What Knox is doing is justifying the rich production values, Jessica Ford’s lush set, like a Thomas Kinkade diorama with better taste, Sarah Pickett’s clever sound design and especially Alex Koziara’s mood-altering lighting. What she is driving at is that Santaland is more than a coffeehouse monologue with darts thrown at safe targets like commercialism and the bogus bonhomie our culture seems to foster even without the holidays.
What Knox finds in The Santaland Diaries is a deeper connection with the enduring secular stories of Christmas, specifically A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, there is a happy ending, with the anonymous good Santa who asks people to forget about greed and care for one another. But outside is the world that drove the narrator to Macy’s in the first place, filled with loneliness, cruelty and despair.
This production runs through Jan. 4. See Times Table for information.
Whether by accident, design or simply kismet, Syracuse Stage’s The Santaland Diaries is running at the same time that its author, humorist David Sedaris, is making a Salt City visit. Sedaris, who spent some of his childhood in Cortland, will perform some of his material during his engagement at the Landmark Theatre, 362 S. Salina St., on Thursday, Dec. 11, 8 p.m. A big hit with the NPR crowd (Oswego’s affiliate WRVO-FM 89.9 has a “presented by” credit in the advertising), Sedaris has been knocking out best sellers ever since Santaland hit big, including When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Tickets are $22, $27, $39 and $47. For information, call the Landmark box office, 472-0700.