Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


12.14.2009

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For its holiday mainstage show, Who Wants Cake? brings out the big guns: Joe Plambeck and Joe Bailey, the powerhouse at the company's helm. Directed by Jamie Richards, The SantaLand Diaries & Season's Greetings is described as a double bill; it draws its name from the titles of the two David Sedaris pieces presented, the former an autobiographical essay recounting the writer's experiences as a Macy's elf, the latter a fictitious — I hope — presentation of a housewife's annual Christmas newsletter.

The two halves of the play are decidedly distinct, as advertised, one narrated and the other in character, one man dressed in an elf costume and the other in winter white with kitten heels, one full of real-life crazies and the other invented craziness. Each has a surprisingly different tone, but together they deliver a cohesive blow to the merry and bright. This sort of anti-Christmas view is unique in that it skewers from within instead of without — rather than hovering at the fringes and throwing barbs, this show derives its humor from characters that stood so close to the Christmas spirit, they got burned.

Plambeck plays the David of SantaLand differently than Sedaris's fans might expect — sure, the author's signature deadpan style of his readings and omnipresent NPR appearances suit his writing well, but this interpretation shows that a different approach connects with just as much of the humor. I admit I was skeptical of the narration during the very casual, low-key beginning, especially contrasted with Plambeck's fantastically hyperbolic mimicry of the people making his life miserable at SantaLand. However, this unassuming start makes room for the character to grow increasingly demented in stages, a subtle turn that paid off well.

Speaking of subtlety, its complete absence from Bailey's second-act performance was not missed. In Mrs. Jocelyn Dunbar, he unveils a character that oozes pride in her family in the same breath as she eviscerates it. The gender switch here, although plenty amusing, is not the primary source of the humor: wig foibles aside, Jocelyn is simply a hilariously judgmental woman navigating riotously complex family developments. The actor demonstrates a knack for extending a joke, using extreme facial expressions that keep the laughs rolling without mugging. Although the final reveal proved difficult to humorously stage, leaving some taken aback (I remember it reading better on paper), Bailey soldiered on and returned the audience to laughter by the play's end.

The design elements are all credited to Richards, with a co-credit to Plambeck for lights; the subsequent low-budget sense of "three guys put on a show" is never eradicated, nor does it impede the performances. No costume designer was named, so it's a shame I can't credit the individual responsible for this pitch-perfect work. The music was also well chosen and implemented; after this serving of holiday bitterness, poor Burl Ives never sounded so tone deaf.

What bridges these disparate presentations, other than having the same author, is the main characters' ringing superiority and eventual reveal as fallacy. A viewer may laugh smugly along with David and Jocelyn at first, but as these characters reveal more of themselves, they become flawed and disturbing, providing a satisfying schadenfreude. Sedaris makes a living in continuously taking himself down a peg, and Richards and the Joes deliver the same with finesse in both halves of this production.

1 Comment:

  1. Judy said...
    Nicely done, with class!

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