Sunday, December 13, 2015

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Two for the Holidays"

Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

Thornton Wilder and David Sedaris might not be an obvious partnership. Multiple Pulitzer Prize winner Wilder, one of this country's most influential mid-Twentieth Century playwrights who tested the boundaries of minimalism and other provocative theatrical styles, and Sedaris, a quirky satirist whose New Yorker magazine and National Public Radio segments conferred him a cult status from the 1990s onward, come from two different worlds. -- Yet, the Cloverdale Playhouse is ending its Fourth Season with one act plays from each of them under the umbrella title "Two for the Holidays". Montgomery audiences are being treated and challenged by Wilder's 1931 The Long Christmas Dinner and Sedaris's 1996 The Santaland Diaries.

In a little over half an hour, Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner takes us through 90-years of Christmas dinners with the Bayard family. Under Layne Holley's sensitive direction, we watch her twelve member ensemble of actors portraying characters who are born, grow up, and die, to be replaced by successive generations bound by their commitment to the simple things of life. Religion, literature, philosophy, love and marriage, the inevitability of death [whether from old age, disease, or war], the value of family history and memories -- all these hold the family together so that even in stressful times we are assured that these universal experiences are what count, and that time alone will see them through.

Wilder's theatrical conceit [one that reminds us continually that we are in a theatre and are meant to ponder his ideas] is to have continuous action in the one dining room, a place before the days of cell phones and social media distractions, where families gather and talk to one another. Characters age before our eyes through subtle costume adjustments and undisguised wig changes, and by actors changing postures and vocal textures. They enter and exit through doorways that symbolically represent birth and death; and so, the cycle of life continues, with each generation repeating phrases, actions, and references that have come before. -- The simplicity of his conceit, one which he developed more fully in Our Town, registers with a profound refinement that leaves audiences more than satisfied.

The acting company are dressed in lush period costumes created by the team of Val Winkelman, Mike DiLaura, Danny Davidson, and Marlene Moore-Goodman, contributing to the naturalistic details of Hannah Butler's set. And while there were a few tentative line readings in their performances, the actors uniformly served the playwright's intentions to leave a lasting impact on audiences.

And "now for something completely different" in the second half, David Sedaris's irreverent The Santaland Diaries, directed by Eleanor Davis, is an extended monologue by a man whose elf name is "Crumpet" [Greg Babb]. Quasi-autobiographical, the "mostly true" Santaland purports to tell the journey of an out-of-work man who, in a behind the scenes tell-all, applies, interviews, trains, and ultimately becomes an elf in Santaland at Macy's department store in New York City.

Self-deprecating and outlandish in his pronouncements about the behaviors of an assortment of children, parents, and especially his fellow employees throughout the growing frenzy of the Christmas Season, Mr.Babb is at his best in the play's more outrageous moments. Uneven at times, he has an ability to deliver Sedaris's witty dialogue with impeccable comic timing, a vocal style reminiscent of Paul Lynde, and an infectious awareness of the scorn he has for the "grinding enthusiasm" and "relentless cheer" of the public face he must show. -- But even "Crumpet" succumbs somewhat and becomes "good by association" with the true spirit of the holidays.

The contrast of these two pieces, each a minor gem in its own way, has audiences laughing and thinking...and perhaps giving consideration to celebrating the holidays with loved ones with an acceptance of one another's contributions to making us who we are.