Popular culture can be instantly disposable, and what might have been outrageous and irreverent 20 years ago can lose its edge long before it exhausts its commercial value.
That seems to be the case with “Santaland Diaries,” a one-actor stage play adapted and directed by Joe Mantello in 1996 and based on a famous 1992 radio essay by David Sedaris.
Sedaris’ piece purported to be an accurate account of his experience working as an “elf” in Macy’s during the Christmas holidays. Much of the humor was derived from the deadpan juxtaposition of his cynical observations of crazed shopping behavior and the fake image of Christmas cheer projected by department stores. But at this late date, the material has lost a lot of its punch, and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre production may leave some viewers wondering: “And the point is . . . ?”
The show, directed by Jerry Genochio and featuring an inventive performance by Brian Sills, elicited two big expressions of approval from the audience on opening night. One was for the set, designed by Clint Ramos, at the moment when what appears to be an enormous Christmas gift unfolds to reveal “Santaland.” The other was for Sills’ inspired performance of “Away in a Manger’ in the style of Billie Holiday.
Audience reactions ranged from occasional guffaws to mild chuckles. A few people near me sat in mute silence. The hard-working Sills did all he could reasonably do with the material and invested the performance with considerable wit and charm. Give the guy credit for giving it his best shot. But there’s nothing surprising in the notion that a grown man looks ridiculous costumed as an elf or that abusive parents attempt to shove the “joy” of Christmas down their kids’ throats.
The show runs only about an hour, and the producers apparently decided the audience deserved more than a one-man show. Thus, we were introduced to the Shenanigans, a jokey musical duo that served up novelty songs, wacky arrangements and unsophisticated sexual humor for 30 minutes before the play began.
Claybourne Elder and Shanna Jones, dressed in campy Tyrolean outfits, exhibited nice comic timing and coaxed a lively response from the audience as they performed on ukulele, guitar and kazoo. Elder kept time with foot pedal attached to a box that functioned as a bass drum. At one point he played a melodica, and Jones kept things interesting on a variety of rhythm instruments.