You hear a lot of laughter at Blackfriars Playhouse. Usually it builds, develops, accumulates slowly, and then overflows in torrents that are hard to stop. Actors sometimes have to pause in the middle of a gesture and wait for the audience to pull itself together. Sometimes they step out of character for a second and shake their heads at each other in disbelief, or shake their heads at us, and since they’re usually doing Shakespeare, that momentary lapse makes the laughter last even longer.
But the laughter during Saturday’s performance of The Santaland Diaries, by David Sedaris, was of a different sort: it burst out of people at peak intensity, with force that shook your seat and struck the middle of your body like a gust. And it stopped as quickly as it started, stopped dead — no transition, no recovery: utter stillness. Guffaw, guffaw, berserk guffaw, then silence. Everybody skips a breath. As if we’ve just been caught at something we might not be allowed to do.
Why do we suddenly stop like that, I wonder?
Halfway through the hour-long performance, Crumpet the Elf explains it to me: “It’s about the parents’ idea of a world they can’t make work for them,” he says. ‘It’ being Santaland. And I realize that we’ve been laughing at humiliation, which beats the hell out of crying over it, if you can keep the other shoe from dropping.
The story goes like this: acting on a dare, Sedaris applied for a job at the Macy’s version of ‘Santaland’, which is a marketing campaign designed to satisfy the hunger of the parents mentioned above, or to feed it, and he was hired as an elf.
“My costume is green,” he says. “I wear green velvet knickers, a forest-green smock, and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.” Wearing that uniform makes him feel like one of those guys you see on the street dressed as toasters or camcorders, handing out leaflets. “I usually avoid leaflets,” he says, “but but it breaks my heart to see a grown man dressed like a taco, so if there’s a costume involved, I tend to not only accept the leaflet, but to accept it graciously, saying, ‘Thank you so much,’ and thinking: you poor son of a bitch.” Which is exactly what he thinks about himself when he puts on those knickers and that smock to go to work: you poor son of a bitch.
Jake Mahler, the actor who plays Crumpet, turns donning that velvet get-up into a laugh by doing it in front of us. He’s in street clothes while he tells us how he came to be an elf and how he feels about it, and then, when it’s time to go to work, he drops his trousers and reaches for the knickers — except his look more like bloomers and he’s added red-and-white striped tights, to make himself look more ridiculous.
“You look so stupid!” some guy tells him on his first day as an elf, and Crumpet wants to say, ‘At least I’m getting paid for looking stupid, not doing it for free!’ But what he says instead is: “Thank you! Thank you!” He lies to people all day long. “You look so pretty!” he tells little girls. “Santa can’t wait to visit with you! You’re all he talks about!”
Mahler wrings a lot of laughter out of lines like that by speaking them to people in the audience, as if those people were children who had come to see Santa. Many of us, of course, are in fact parents who have forced our children to sit on the laps of Santa-men they’ve never met, perhaps because we ourselves were forced to sit for photographs in reindeer sweaters with our hair combed in a way we didn’t like, photographs which, Sedaris says, were meant to prove that everything’s all right. Some parents glue that photographic evidence to a piece of felt and hang it by the stockings every year so no one has to wonder whether things are going well.
Blackfriars Playhouse is a great venue to work the crowd that way, with seats on three sides of the stage — some seats on the stage itself — and universal lighting that encourages all of us to watch each other laugh at Mahler’s hilarious exaggerations about mothers who do things like make their sons tell Santa they want Procter and Gamble to stop animal testing – mothers who then slap their sons upside the head for mispronouncing Procter. Or fathers who sit on Santa’s lap themselves and say, “I want a broad with big jugs!” while their small-breasted wives grind their teeth and their sons try to laugh.
Which of us would say an awful thing like that?
We like it when he interacts with us because it feels like being in cahoots, as if we ourselves might wind up working as an elf some day, or as an actor who makes people laugh at stupid people. Some of us in fact have been that elf, in one kind of costume or another, and as Mahler strolls between the front of the stage and the first row of seats, we think of him as one of us, the one who found a way to take all that humiliation, ours and his, and turn it into laughter we can leave there in that theater. I think that’s why this laughter stops so quickly: we’re afraid that in the end we’ll have to take it home with us. The bosses who insist we dress in silly clothes are always watching.
Like most of the parents, and most of the elves, and most of the Santas, Sedaris himself is beset by an idea of the world he can’t make work: he expected to become the best writer Days of Our Lives ever had, but he’s an elf. Because the essay that became this play delivered Sedaris from spangled hats and velvet knickers to the front row of American popular letters, we hope there might still be a way to make our own ideas work. If there is, it probably requires us to sign on for a second year at Santaland, which is what Sedaris did.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission. The Santaland Diaries plays through December 26, 2012 at at Blackfriars Playhouse -10 S. Market Street, in Staunton, VA. For tickets, purchase them online.