KPBS AIRDATE: December 17, 1998
If an overdose of treacly holiday confections has left you feeling bloated and theatrically dyspeptic, you may want to sample some alternative holiday entertainment fare. Consider going to the edge with one of San Diego’s two edgiest theater companies, the already-venerable Sledgehammer and the young upstart Fritz. Frankly, though, in terms of the cynical, acidic antidote I expected, both theaters’ holiday offerings were sort of hohohum.
At the Fritz, artistic director Bryan Bevell took on that Christmas behemoth, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This stage version, written by James W. Rodgers in 1993, stays pretty close to the 1946 Frank Capra film classic. Bevell had promised all sorts of weird twists on the tale, but he didn’t really deliver. What we got — and it is a terrific touch — is color-blind and cross-gender casting. George Bailey, that Jimmy Stewart nice-guy turned bridge-jumping depressive, is now black, his wife is white and one of his kids is Asian. Potter, the town villain, is a woman, and the cop-and-sidekick duo — the original Bert and Ernie — are a black male and a white, cross-dressed female.
Going against the grain in all the right ways are D. Candis Paule as a bitchy, black-clad Potter with Charlie Riendeau’s strong/silent mafioso aide-de-vamp on her arm; and Julie Jacobs, that spectacular chameleon, delightfully kidlike as Young George and a regular guy as Ernie. Melissa Supera is a wonderfully credible but not saccharine girl-next-door, a lovely match for Christopher Wylie as a wide-eyed, naive, but not mawkish George. As the guardian angel Clarence, Michael Hummell starts out so frenetic and neurotic, he seems to have lost his wings not in heaven, but in a Nicky Silver play; once he calms down, he has some peak moments. For the rest, it’s a pretty straight presentation, dewy-eyed and sweet, and bearing highly unFritz-like warm-hearted sentiment.
A lot less warm-hearted, and you might say, downright misanthropic, is David Sedaris’ “SantaLand Diaries.” Originally aired on NPR, later published in his first book, “Barrel Fever,” the piece made Sedaris a comic cult figure. Now it’s a stage monologue, presented at Sledgehammer Theatre, acted by Fred Harlow and directed by Ethan Feerst. It’s come a long way from David Sedaris. So long that it isn’t funny any more. The writing was good and solid, but it was Sedaris’ delivery that made this hilarious but potentially heart-breaking story of an out-of-work writer becoming an elf one Christmas at Macy’s Herald Square. His style is flat, whiny, fey, deadpan and drop-dead riotous. That’s what makes it work.
Harlow, with his malleable face and voice, is not reading dryly from a diary entry, he’s re-enacting every moment of his hellish experience in a simulated world of eternal glee, where children are intolerable and their parents are positively hateful. It comes off more sad than funny, often maudlin and even pathetic. When I first heard it on the radio, I nearly went off the road I was laughing so hard. Here, I had to fight to stay with it. I wasn’t buying this chunky elf (who looks like he’d be better cast as Santa, which he did in fact play at Macy’s at the same time Sedaris was being his elfin self). There’s a bit of prissiness required, and a heavy dose of derisive cynicism, which are missing in this performance. But if you close your eyes and think neurotic, gay, satiric skeptic, you might get the skewed holiday image this piece intended: Christmas candy dripping with strychnine.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.