They populate department stores and wander through malls with a bell and plastic collection cup. Through the rush of colourful paper and tufts of tinsel, it’s easy to walk right by a mall Santa and his elves taking Christmas list orders, posing for photos and handing out candy canes. The symbol of commercialized Christmas for generations, it’s their blighted lives that famous humourist David Sedaris captured with his essay, the Santaland Diaries, which was later translated for the stage by Joe Mantello. Now, with the help of Lunchbox Theatre and local television personality Dave Kelly, the anti-holiday play will be cynically gracing the Calgary theatre scene this holiday season.
“I guess it’s an anti-fake holiday play,” says Dave Kelly, host of Breakfast Television on CityTV, who will be taking the principal role. “It’s not all death, mayhem and destruction either, though. I think it’s a very urban story. A lot of the Christmas tales we grew up with are sort of about when we all lived in 50-person rural communities, and that just doesn’t happen anymore.”
Sedaris originally wrote the Santaland Diaries after taking a job as a Christmas elf at Macy’s when he was living in New York. In the theatrical version, Sedaris’ experiences with obnoxious parents, quirky Santas and curly shoes are delivered in a witty monologue characteristic of his writing. What made the book so successful was the unflinching honesty and reliability he presented the stories with, so one of the challenges of bringing them to the stage—especially with someone else delivering them—is keeping the personality of the text intact.
“Well, I sort of have to bring my own experience to it,” says Kelly. “I mean, it’s me up there doing it, so if it’s no good, everyone’s going to look at me like the guy who ruined it. I’m from Edmonton, so Christmas to me is all about booking cars, booking flights and running around to the end of God’s green acres, so that’s what I associate with Christmas more than anything else. And rather than ignoring the stress of Christmas, I think this script dives right into it.”
While the second half of the play presents Sedaris’ experiences as an elf, the first half is comprised of two monologues from fictional characters—a theatre critic and a television producer—who pad the show out to its full length. In previous performances of Santaland the second act has almost always been well received, but the first has met criticism for a contrived or trite sense of humor. Despite the reviews of the show from other cities, Kelly remains confident the Lunchbox version has addressed the necessary problems.
“Well it’s a challenge because [Sedaris’] writing is so bright and so very funny,” says Kelly. “I mean, I’m not a 33-year-old New Yorker, and I don’t think anyone would believe it if I pretended to be. So I guess this is a Western Canadian perspective on an East Coast American story—and the setting of the Lunchbox Theatre right downtown in the middle of a mall couldn’t be more perfect for it.”
With an award-winning writer, a theatre company with a proven record and the pseudo-celebrity power of Dave Kelly, the Santaland Diaries looks to be where Calgary’s misanthropes can go this holiday season for a wry laugh and dram of dark humor. At the very least, it’ll be an evening’s distraction from their family’s criticism, alcoholism and inevitable shouting matches. Happy holidays.