Good satire is hard to pull off. It requires the ability to sustain a human connection to what is being satirized while also pointing out its flaws and foibles. This ability to build on the audience's naiveté and step back just in time to comment on the fallout is very rare.
As a result, David Sedaris' first reading of his holiday essay "The SantaLand Diaries" on NPR in 1992 was an instant success. The American humorist's account of his stint as a Christmas elf at Macy's was dramatized in 1996. It appeals to hip middle-class audiences who are fed up with the commercial excesses of Christmas - but not so fed up that they're willing to boycott the seasonal repertory.
Make no mistake: The theaters satirizing the excesses of Black Friday are hoping, just like the retailers, that the seasonal trade will put them into the black before year's end. This has become more difficult in a desperate economy. Last week's headlines were dominated by terrorist attacks in Mumbai, while here at home, 2,000 shoppers trampled an employee to death at a Long Island Wal-Mart and two California men staged a fatal shoot-out in Toys "R" Us.
Sedaris' wry, humorous look at seasonal excess was once so popular, it was staged by both the Cleveland Play House and Cleveland Public Theatre. CPT's casting this year of Sean Booker in the role of Crumpet the Elf seems to acknowledge that the joke is finally over. The talented Booker brings a pumped-up Cedric the Entertainer-style energy to the proceedings. As a result, we miss much of the irony and are struck instead by the outrageousness.
A 33-year-old man succumbs to a series of demeaning interviews for a position that is at best ridiculous, knowing as he recounts the humiliation that he may not even get the job. Parents and children stand in line for hours finally reaching the anti-climactic photo-op on Santa's lap. We hear the inside story on the elves' locker room and about the strained relations between the diva Santas and the elfin chorus, the endless lines, the frayed nerves, etc.
CPT has decked the halls of Gordon Square Theatre with all the trappings of a department-store Christmas display, including twinkling lights, glittering trees and a throne for the Jolly Old Elf himself. Patrons can watch from the seats or reserve a cabaret table in front, with bar service that continues through the performance.
On Friday and Saturday nights, the audience is invited to stay for a free performance of The Red Human-Headed Bull, another monologue. This one is by local writer Eric Alleman, who takes the mic to tell a dark story of living in the shadow of his great-grandfather's past. During the hour-long show, you can hear a pin drop. There is not a sound, not a movement from the spellbound audience.
Now that's more like it. Thanks, CPT, for this gift of a true and unusual voice that is not afraid of the darkness.
The Santaland Diaries Through December 20 Cleveland Public Theatre 6415 Detroit Avenue 216.631-2727