Theatre review: The Santaland Diaries is over-engineered

Just like the kids hopped up on sugar in the line-up to see “the big guy” at Macy’s, Ryan Beil’s elfin energy knows no bounds, but even Beil has a tough time keeping The Santaland Diaries from drowning in its own pool of spiked eggnog.

 The Santaland Diaries 	 Ryan Beil in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of The Santaland Diaries. Photo by Tim Matheson.During the economic downturn in the early 90s humorist David Sedaris found himself, like many Americans, without gainful employment.  Willing to take on anything, while continuing to cling to the hope of one day writing for a soap opera, in 1991 Sedaris took on the role of elf at the massive Santaland located inside Macy’s New York flagship.  Writing about that experience a year later, Sedaris started on his rise to fame after reading his essay on National Public Radio (NPR).  The essay was adapted by Joe Mantello into the one-man show that is currently on stage at the Arts Club’s Revue Stage.

In an attempt to theatricalize his essay, the understated and sardonic nature of the original is all but lost.  In the Arts Club version at least, director John Murphy over-engineers just about every aspect of the production including lighting cues that could set even the mildest epileptic into shock plus projections and sound effects that are at times cruelly insensitive (even in 1991 the word “retarded” was wrong) and wholly unnecessary.  If that isn’t enough Murphy goes a step further in giving his sole actor, Beil in photo right by Tim Matheson, so much business, including a couple of odd trips beyond the fourth wall, that he sweats buckets by the time the show is finished.

There is no subtlety here; what has made Sedaris’ text an enduring feature on NPR has been reduced to frantic sound bites.  The pace is so rushed at times that some of the jokes seem to fall out of Biel’s mouth and land with a thud, missing Santaland’s “vomit corner” completely.

Beil is a likeable actor and it was not surprising to see him cast in this role, but he is so busy executing on Murphy’s over-engineered staging he never really gets to shine and much of the fun seems to be missing.

2 1/2 of 5 Stars The Santaland Diaries

By David Sedaris.  Adapted by Joe Mantello.  Directed by John Murphy.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production.  On stage at the Granville Island Revue Stage through December 29, 2012.  Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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