"I am a 33-year-old man applying for a job as an elf." That's a pretty amusing line, but it's even funnier if the person saying it has the exact opposite demeanor from an elf. It's Comedy 101: The odd juxtaposition gets laughs. And this is where The Santaland Diaries at Cleveland Public Theatre goes wrong from the outset.
This show, adapted by Joe Mantello from the David Sedaris essay that rocked National Public Radio 17 years ago, is now a holiday staple at theaters of all sizes and levels of professionalism.
But what it needs more than anything is a stiff dose of bitters, so that we experience all the fake-Santa hype from the perspective of a bitingly satirical, unemployed gay man. This man applies for and is awarded a job as a happy elf named Crumpet at Macy's Santaland, but he's sour, sardonic and bitchily accurate in his piercing descriptions of the tinselly world around him.
Instead, Doug Kusak, reprising his performance from two years ago on this same stage, comes on all happy and giggly. Laughing at his own lines while schmoozing and ad-libbing with the audience, he has the vibe of a local disc jockey MCing a high-school dance. If this worked in 2007, it ain't working now.
Of course, Kusak needn't try to imitate Sedaris' cramped, monotone delivery that many found so arresting on the radio. But the actor, under the befuddled direction of Brian D. Bethune, never establishes a clear identity for the neurotic man underneath Crumpet's spangles. As a result, Kusak's character (if we can call it that) is merely a mechanism for intoning witty lines without a shred of detectable personality or implied backstory.
This not only drains much of the humor, it results in some uncomfortable moments. Crumpet talks about being one of the elves welcoming groups of "retarded" and "deformed" children, an already delicate proposition. But the lines seem startlingly mean-spirited coming from this affable extrovert, rather than from a neurotic with low self-esteem and anti-social tendencies. And when he describes his attraction to a flirtatious male elf named Snowball, Crumpet's sweet disappointment falls flat. Because Kusak never lets us in on his sexual orientation in any way, we don't understand when he acts crestfallen.
There are still plenty of laugh lines, which make Santaland bulletproof material. The descriptions of dippy Elf Flaky and her goofy art pieces (radios covered in human hair) and sleazy Elf Walrus (a singles' bar dude who hits on the moms) are clever as ever. And Kusak handles nicely the climactic scene, when Crumpet is touched by the real emotion conjured by a Santa who has his priorities straight. But by starting hot, loud and laughing, Kusak never gives his character anywhere to go. And that, in turn, leaves the audience wanting much more.