It's Christmas time in New Jersey Theatre
Well, some of us just hadn't noticed. Over the past several years, it seems that one of the most widely produced Christmas shows throughout the country has been an hour long stage adaptation by Joe Mantello of a 1992 essay by David Sedaris. It presents Sedaris as a new to New York, out of work and just about out of money young writer. He obtains a job as an elf at Santaland at Macy's Herald Square. And therein lies the tale.
Fortunately for those of us in northern New Jersey, Maplewood's What Exit? Theatre, which specializes in comedy, has brought The Santaland Diaries, this most deservedly popular adult Christmas entertainment, to New Jersey in grand fashion.
This is a sharply observed and hilarious work which describes the indignities visited upon young David when he has to don a ridiculous red and green elf's outfit in order to perform a myriad of tasks while at the mercy of retail store supervisors, quirky Santas and hordes of demanding parents and children. It describes the attitudes and styles of his fellow elves and the various Santas with whom he has to work - including at the last, an exceptional Santa who has the ability to help children and their families appreciate the true spirit of Christmas. One's pleasure is heightened by finding an adult, acerbic work which eschews mean spiritedness and vulgarity, and does not seek to undermine the joy of Christmas.
For its production of The Santaland Diaries, What Exit? Has ventured out from its usual theatre space in Maplewood to ensconce itself in the intimate lounge of the Toro Loco restaurant in South Orange Village. Here you can buy a drink and sit cheek by jowl with the jovially acerbic David (identified in the program by his self-selected elf name, Crumpet) as he serially opens each of the Christmas decorated gift boxes surrounding him on stage to withdraw one of the series of cocktails which he drinks throughout the evening.
Harry Patrick Christian, who appeared to channel Charles Busch in the Theatre Project production of The Lady in Question, makes an ideal, oversized elf. A large man with a most pleasant, soft putty face and a buoyant, comic personality, Christian conveys David's delight in being with us. David surely suffered through much of his time in Santaland. However, under the happy influence of a few drinks, David derives great pleasure in regaling his friends (that's us) with stories of his days working at Santaland. It is hard to conceive of a more delightful David than our Harry Patrick.
Company Associate Artistic Director David Winitsky surely must share credit for Christian's buoyant performance and the extremely intimate presentation which serves the material so well.
There are a few references here that are adult in the sense of not being appropriate for younger children (i.e., the flirty elf to whom David is attracted). However, for the most part, what makes The Santaland Diaries an adult entertainment is its acerbic humor and keen insight into human foibles.
The Santaland Diaries continues performances (Thurs., Fri. 8 p.m. / Sat. 7:30 & 9:30 p.m.) through December 15 at the Lounge at Toro Loco Restaurant, 23 Valley Street, South Orange Village 070790. For Tickets and Information: 973-763-4029 / on-line: www.whatexittheatre.com.
The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, adapted by Joe Mantello, directed by David Winitsky
Photo: Diane DePaolis
This 1953 Samuel and Bella Spewack adaptation of the French play La Cuisine des Anges by Albert Husson is an extremely well constructed, old-fashioned three-act Broadway comedy. Under the sure-handed direction of Edward Matthews, it is performed with the carefully calibrated, deftly light touch which is required to convey the nutty charm on which the authors rely to divert and entertain its audience. Similarly to the classic Arsenic and Old Lace, the crimes in My Three Angels are depicted with a light, humorous touch.
David Volin portrays Jules, a loving husband who, having come home unexpectedly to find his beloved wife in flagrante delicto, strangled her. Volin displays a swagger and strength which convince us that he is capable of that crime. Still, he disarms us with the bright and sincere manner in which Jules blames himself for coming home unexpectedly as well as the rueful manner in which he notes that he would have remained a loving, law abiding husband if he had had a faithful wife. Allen Lewis Rickman is delightfully impish as the accountant-swindler Joseph. We observe his effective, albeit deceptive, techniques in making sales in the Ducotel general store with recognition and glee. The youngest convict Alfred, portrayed here by Jeremy Hall, is the most untamed and immature of the three convicts.
Roland Johnson is most likeably comic as the ineffectual Felix Ducotel. Maria Brodeur brings a great deal of warmth and feeling to the role of his devoted wife Emilie. A highlight is a delicate moment beautifully captured by Brodeur and Volin. Kate Billard is totally charming as the Ducotel daughter, Marie Louise. Patrick Cogan as Henri and Morgan Nichols as Paul are properly hissable villains.
Praise is also due to director Edward Matthews for preserving the three-act structure (two intermissions), so well crafted by the Spewacks. Beyond its Christmas Eve and morning setting, what makes My Three Angels a Christmas play is its emphasis on the importance of home and family. The three convicts are drawn to the loving Ducotel family, and adopt them as surrogates for the families which are denied them. My Three Angels retains sufficient humor, charm and likeability to provide pleasant family entertainment.
My Three Angels continues performances (Thurs 7:30 p.m./ Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. / Sun. 2:30 p.m.) through December 9, 2007 at the Centenary Stage Company on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900. online www.centenarystageco.org.
My Three Angels by Samuel and Bella Spewack; directed by Edward Matthews