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Season’s Cretins

D.W. Fairbanks

It’s December at the Weekly, and the holiday-themed press releases are almost all in. (Who says L.A. has no seasons?) The ones publicizing theater events inevitably fall into two categories: "family values" and "spit-wad anarchy." Sugar and spice. In the first stack, you’ll find promotions for, you know, that Dickens play, along with countless other stage depictions of "the true meaning of Christmas," from the Beverly Hills Community Theater to the San Diego Rep. Add a couple of productions of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory and a few holiday musical revues, and you’ve got about as much theatrical eggnog as the market can be expected to gag down. And if you are already on the verge of throwing up, you may take comfort from the other, smaller pile of notices advertising the likes of Hate for the Holidays, Santa’s Busted Jaw and the "adult-themed" Not crack er — events that are the stage equivalent of Pasadena’s anti–Rose Bowl revel, the Doo-Dah! Parade.

But even if one sensibility does parody the other, it’s a miscon ception that they’re at odds. Rather, the anarchic plays, by barfing up all the season’s excessive sentimentality, purge and sustain the commercial organism. Also mistaken is the belief that the holiday season, with its remarkable capacity to ensnare, embrace and — in its own special way — torture the public, is primarily about things. Notwith standing the millions of dollars that will be spent in the next two weeks on Furbies and bicycles, on TVs and PCs and CDs, Amer ica’s consumerism is, and always was, profoundly spiritual — the strategic manifestation of an ache deep in our collective soul, of an endless psychic hunger for belonging, for family, for permanence, security and support in a world that (despite the flashy technology) is more Dickensian that anyone cares to admit.

David Sedaris and Danny Hoch understand this idea very well, and incorporate it into their writings. Sedaris, whom you may know as a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, has penned a pair of holiday-themed monologues, staged at the Coast Playhouse under the umbrella title The Santaland Diaries, while Hoch performs Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, his latest response to a media-hyped world, at Actors’ Gang Theater.

If you attend Santaland this weekend, you’ll see Ann Magnuson in Sedaris’ curtain raiser, Season’s Greetings; next week, it’ll be Wendy Malick. On the night I attended, the role was read by Linda Wallem — a pleasing, dowdy figure in red robe, black slippers and thick-rimmed glasses, parked in a vinyl padded armchair next to a TV that hinted at the ’50s with its small screen, V-shaped antenna and outsize knobs.

Strange, then, that even given the production’s obvious visual whimsy, the story places its character circa 1986. In any case, the protagonist recites a holiday letter she has written, presumably to friends and extended family, describing a 21-year-old Vietnamese woman — her husband’s illegitimate daughter no less, evidently the product of a wartime liaison — and how she has arrived unannounced, translator in tow. In a crescendo of domestic mishaps and misunderstandings among a zany family, the saga eventually takes a glibly ghoulish turn — so much so that the opening-night audience, and this critic, just couldn’t swing with it. (Anarchy, it seems, is a delicate art.)

Other problems in Season’s Greetings lie in the discrepancy between the languages of theater and radio (Sedaris’ actual home turf, despite his also being a writer for the stage). Here, every story-link is articulated, every irony sounded in Wallem’s voice, then doubled, visually, in her gestures and facial expressions. The poor woman has too much to do, and we too little.

A similar curse plagues the main offering, The Santaland Diaries, performed by the pleasantly sardonic Evan Gore, who shows every sign of one day becoming Andy Rooney.

It appears that Joe Mantello directed both plays from his car phone on the way to the mall, for Gore stands somewhat awkwardly on various stage marks, narrating his character’s travails — and mostly superficial observations — while employed during the holidays at Macy’s as an elf named Crumpet. He regales us with generic tales about insane shoppers, deranged Santas, kids who urinate into the store’s Christmas decorations, and the sheer indignity of standing around in an elf costume — an indignity Gore himself endures for most of the play. When one customer tells the elf how stupid he looks, he manages to refrain from responding, "Yes, but I get paid to look stupid — you give it away for free." Which only makes one hope that Gore is being paid well for this performance.

Near the play’s anxiously awaited ending, Crumpet tells of an "inspirational" Santa whose homespun counsel ("Do you tell your daughter you love her? Do you tell her every day?") reduced a pair of jaded NYC parents to tears, then segues into his own rage at a customer who threatened to have him fired. Here, Sedaris reveals how sweetness and spice can be part of the same broth — Santaland’s small, but telling, revelation.

A sadness pervades Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, despite the tribal thumping of Tim Schellen baum’s sound design, and even despite Danny Hoch’s hyperactive, often brilliant performance. In a work that premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theater, Hoch picks up more or less where Eric Bogo sian left off, in a series of eccentric character sketches set in the title locales. We meet, among others, a prison guard who has attacked an inmate ("No, the prisoner is not fine," he explains with muted irritation to his daughter, "but Daddy is fine, [and] that’s what matters"); the crippled victim of a police shooting (Hoch succeeds, strictly through body language, in evoking his crutches); and, in a skit that portrays the fabled American melting pot as both unifier and isolator, a kid in Montana who plays out the fantasy of being a black rapper while agonizing over which Tommy Hilfiger shirt to wear.

Hoch is a ball of charisma — as sociologically astute as he is physically limber — who understands the contradictions and hypocrisy of his characters, and of the national scene. "You laugh at my English, I laugh at your country," his Cuban character tells an American tourist when she rebuffs his offer of a home-cooked meal — and one of the many beautiful ironies here is that the Cuban knows so much more about the American pop milieu than she does. The heart of Hoch’s view lies in the effects, both magical and pernicious, of a culture in which style passes for wisdom.

In the performance’s high spot, for example, a hip-hopper called Emcee rehearses, Rupert Pupkin–like, for an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. With all the requisite bluster, Emcee sits back in his chair and talks about being a model of social concern, all very P.C. — until, that is, he lets slip the truth about how the big time was, in fact, his reward for a corpus of hateful lyrics, written while he was on drugs. The downward spiral of Emcee’s fantasy results, finally, in growing belligerence toward Letterman and his stupid pet tricks: "A rodent has a better chance of getting on your show than me . . . People just want doodoo bullshit all day long! That’s why you’re doing so well, Dave!"

The sadness comes from knowing that by the time Hoch gets on Letterman — and he most probably will one day — he’ll have already been co-opted and silenced. Hoch is smart enough to know it, and the consequent anxiety lies at the core of his show.

In a now infamous story, Hoch was called from a theater festival in Cuba to do a role on Seinfeld, and on the set he realized he was expected to play the part of a Mexican pool cleaner with a heavy accent. When Hoch protested against the stereotype — and offered alternatives — Jerry Seinfeld promptly fired him. "They never even paid me," Hoch confides. "If they’d paid me, I wouldn’t be telling this story."

And that’s exactly the point.


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