December 10, 2010, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian
Avisit to Santa at the department store, a Christmas letter. Flu and economic doldrums. Laughter, oh yes, and nostalgia too. Humorist David Sedaris may have written his twin holiday tales, “Santaland Diaries” and “Season’s Greetings,” in the 1990s, but their themes remain hilariously and touchingly current.
“His writing is really genius, which I think is the basic reason David Sedaris is so well-known,” said Mikyla Veis, director of a staged production of the two monologues at the Crystal Theatre next week. “Because of his sense of humor, he is able to point out all the inconsistencies that Christmas really isn’t perfect, but in the end it’s really valuable.”
Sedaris’ singular sense of humor is indeed well known, thanks largely to exposure on National Public Radio and the public radio staple, “This American Life.” In fact, it was a nationally broadcast reading of “Santaland Diaries” on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992 that launched Sedaris into the national spotlight as the sardonic, self-deprecating comic muse of modern middle-class America.
The story, which was adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello and premiered in New York in 1996, follows the tale of an impoverished would-be soap opera writer named Crumpet, who takes a seasonal job as an elf at Macy’s department store in New York. He is, as the Washington Post once proclaimed, “a foul-mouthed eccentric who pitilessly limns the souls and desperate lives of those around him.”
Yet, despite himself, he manages to learn an important lesson about human nature in the end.
In that sense, “Santaland Diaries” serves as something of a template for the work that has since made Sedaris famous: Semi-autobiographical, born out of satire yet awash in the warm glow of sentiment, it’s a story that should ring as familiar as holiday bells – at least to those who suffer from the common ailment of holiday burnout at this time of year.
“At the end, I think the audience will get the sense that the season is a really valuable time for family and friends, while being able to laugh at all the problems they encounter,” said Veis.
“Season’s Greetings” isn’t nearly so uplifting in its turn on another common holiday season staple, the family Christmas letter. The author of this particular letter, Jocelyn, is a family matriarch who has recently found her family belatedly expanded, thanks to the surprise arrival of a 22-year-old Vietnamese woman who was apparently fathered by Jocelyn’s husband. What ensues is a politically incorrect, dark twist on one of the most familiar forms of the season.
For the Missoula performance, Veis will engage in a little family mini-drama of her own, directing her mother, Pam Veis, in the role of Jocelyn. Pam, a Havre resident and regular fixture of regional stages in northern and eastern Montana, will make her Missoula theatrical debut in the role.
“It’s challenging but it’s awesome,” said Mikyla of the opportunity to boss her mother around on stage. “I’m really fortunate to be working with her; she’s a great actress and inspiration for me, and she is so experienced, that she really makes it easy.”
Justin Fatz, a familiar actor here in Missoula, will perform “Santaland Diaries.”
The younger Veis said that she and her fellow crew at Montana Actors’ Theatre chose to present Sedaris’ two short plays as a way to present a different type of holiday-themed entertainment this year.
“We wanted to do something a little edgier for Christmas than we’ve done in the past, something with the sardonic humor rather than just the standard ‘Christmas Carol’ type of entertainment,” she said. “I think there are a lot of folks who will like this because it’s not the same old familiar story.”