The Sacred Fools' Christmas double-bill offers something sort of foolish and something sort of sacred. In the end, sacred wins out. The foolish is David Sedaris' sardonic solo radio play, The SantaLand Diaries, adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello into what is essentially an overlong, mean-spirited standup routine. The sacred is The Long Christmas Dinner, a 50-minute distillation of quintessential Thornton Wilder, with flashes of Our Town and Skin of Our Teeth echoing through a heartrending human drama.
Stretching material suitable for a 15-minute sketch about a beleaguered department store elf to an inexplicable 60 minutes (and billed as a "curtain raiser," no less), The SantaLand Diaries apparently receives frequent productions—for unclear reasons. Except for performer Andrew Friedman's line flubs, there's little to fault in his game efforts or in director Dave P. Moore's colorful staging, which attempts to energize the piece. Even in its sharpest satiric moments—jabs at commercialism, obnoxious customers, and pea-brained co-worker elves—this episodic material is mildly amusing at best. The wit is not incisive enough to elevate the script's ridiculing of retarded children and images of vomit and urination from tasteless to funny, and far too many segments fall flat. Perhaps fans of teen gross-out flicks might find this curdled holiday concoction to their liking.
Thank heavens for the Wilder piece, celebrating its 70th anniversary. Under Moore's sensitive direction, a superb ensemble explores the rich thematic byways of this deceptively profound one-act. Everything old is new again as several generations of a Midwestern family, spanning 90 years, convey the emotional thread that runs through familial bonds, as well as the gradual acceptance of changing times and traditions. The linking device is the annual family Christmas dinner, which regularly shifts from one year to a later year in the blink of an eye, with the skilled actors portraying the aging process subtly, while deftly communicating the lightning-paced time shifts. Repetition of similar dialogue in various segments underlines Wilder's themes of a cosmic universe, and his ingenious way of turning the seemingly mundane to the deeply affecting drives his compelling vision.
Every actor has moments to shine. A few play double roles, which adds to the sense of genetic continuity. Especially convincing is Barbara Kerr Condon, portraying the stately original grandmother figure as the play begins, then playing an elderly cousin. Scott Paetty handles his segue from fresh-faced young sibling to family patriarch with panache. The other ensemble members (Blythe Baten, David Holcomb, Friedman, Richard Gustafson, Beth Kirkpatrick, and Deena Rubinson) also deserve kudos.
Both offerings are handsomely staged, enhanced by Moore's spare but festive set concepts, Brian Fletcher's crisp lighting effects, and Mary Hayes' costumes—witty and campy for SantaLand, lovely and credible for Dinner. We've said this in previous reviews, but it never seemed more apt: Rate this as one-half of a Critic's Pick.
"The Long Christmas Dinner, and The SantaLand Diaries," presented by and at the Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Dec. 7-22. $15. (310) 281-8337.