I am a huge David Sedaris fan. I love the way he writes, his odd, memorable diction and nasal tenor when he speaks, and especially his jangly, snarky tone that seems to take everything and nothing very seriously. So a great deal of readying myself to see The Santaland Diaries at the Logan Fringe Arts Space consisted of getting that distinctive voice out of my head, and opening myself up to whatever new and different things Director Joe Brack and company chose to do with the material. And there was quite a lot that was new and different. And I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Start with the space. The Logan Fringe Arts Space is in the Trinidad neighborhood of northeast DC, near Gallaudet University, in a mixed residential/industrial area.
You initially enter a charming courtyard with mismatched but coordinated patio furniture (all of which appears to be for sale), which leads you into the Fringe Arts Bar. It’s a decently well-appointed, well-stocked, reasonably priced cocktail bar playing classic rock-n-roll Christmas music where you can sit and people-watch, while you wait for the house to open. A great start to the evening.
When the “House” light comes on in the bar letting you know you can enter the performance space, you’ll find the stairs leading up to the stage area are decorated with gaily wrapped packages of varying sizes, down to the frames on the walls. At the top of the stairs, the relatively small, white-walled industrial room has been transformed by Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows’ colored spots echoing the Christmas lights strung around the stage, footlights that brighten and dim throughout the show, and enormous snowflakes projected all over the walls and ceiling. The lighting scheme immediately warms the space and makes it intimate rather than just small.
The stage is set up in the round, with three rows of chairs on all sides. The set design is minimal, but interesting, consisting of only a small red rug, a stool, a chest of drawers, and a console table with a “mirror” on top that is arranged like an altar with candles and greenery. The pieces can seem homey when they need to, but are nondescript enough to stand in for desks, lockers, and other institutional furniture when the play calls for it.
All of this serves as backdrop for the performance itself. The Santaland Diaries is an hour-long one-actor show, essentially a dialogue between the main character, based on Sedaris himself, and the audience. Matty Griffiths takes on this task with few props to aid him or hide him other than a very silly hat and a glass of water masquerading as a gin and tonic.
In a somewhat eccentric costume made up of khakis and an Oxford shirt paired with alligator shoes, candy cane-striped socks and what may be the world’s ugliest Ugly Christmas Sweater, Griffiths invites the audience in to regale them with the darkly funny story of the year he became a 33 year-old Macy’s elf on a dare, surrounded by crazy supporting characters like sexy fellow elf Snowball who flirts with all the other men and then complains about the attention; Santa Santa, who seems to have no other name and takes his job a tad too seriously; and The Walrus, an elf who treats Macy’s Santaland like his own personal singles bar.
Griffiths is wonderful as Crumpet, Santa’s most sardonic little helper, and he routinely uses a somewhat flat speaking voice and slightly odd diction that is clearly meant to connote sarcasm. That can be a difficult balance to strike, but Griffiths sells it with a great smile and terrific comic timing. Kudos to Stage Manager Zoia Wiseman as well for her voiceovers as the Macy’s public address system which serve to ground the action in time and space, and generally just crack the audience up.
Interestingly, this is the fifth time Brack and Griffiths have done this show together, but the first time Griffiths is on the stage with Brack behind it. Director Brack indicated that they try to do something different with the material every time, and this year they have collaborated to produce a performance that is fairly evenly balanced between poignancy and hilarity. The Santaland Diaries is a great way to spend an evening if you like your holidays with more snap than sweetness.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
Note: There is no elevator in the building, so the performance space is not readily accessible for patrons with mobility issues.
Reversed Elf: Joe Brack Directs Matty Griffiths in ‘The Santaland Diaries’ Opening Tomorrow 12/2 @8 PM at Capital Fringe’s Logan Arts Space Through 12/24.