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Santaland Diaries & Season’s Greetings at RTP Bring Much-Needed Holiday Comic Relief

With the most wonderfully stressful time of the year upon us, we could all use some laughs.

Marilyn Drew Necci | December 4, 2017

Where sentimental saps are concerned, I’m up there with the best of them, especially where Christmas is concerned. I love watching the old Christmas specials from my childhood on YouTube as much as the next person, if not more. That being said, the stress and pressure that comes along with the Christmas season can get under even my skin, so I know it’s way worse for a lot of other people. If this whole Christmas thing is just feeling like way too much for you, you should do your best to get over to Richmond Triangle Players sometime this month; they have just the antidote you need.

RTP’s presentation of David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries and Season’s Greetings is a blackly humorous blast of twisted fun. A lot of us know Sedaris’s wry, cynical worldview from short story collections like Me Talk Pretty One Day and When You Are Engulfed In Flames, and the two short plays that make up this evening of entertainment had their origins in Sedaris short stories. Adapted in the mid-90s by Joe Mantello, they were first performed as plays in 1996 and first came to RTP 13 years ago.

That was a while back now, but the 2017 edition of Santaland Diaries and Season’s Greetings brings back the original cast and director from 13 years ago, so there’s a clear through-line from the first RTP performance right up to today. For this reason, you may notice that the actors, Jacqueline Jones (Jocelyn) and Robert Throckmorton (David) are slightly older than seems appropriate for the parts in which they are cast — indeed, Throckmorton’s bio includes a wry note thanking audiences for “your suspension of disbelief at the line ‘I am a 33-year-old man’.” However, both Jones and Throckmorton knock it out of the park with excellent performances, making the age discrepancy something the audience can easily overlook.

My wife and I were newcomers to the Robert B. Moss Theatre in Scott’s Addition, and were a little dismayed to find our seats separated by a table. Ideal this may be for those hoping to dine or drink during the performance, but if you’re hoping to sit with your arm around your sweetie, closer to the front would be far more ideal. Fortunately for us, we were able to switch seats with someone and get settled in next to each other before the show got started.

The evening begins with Season’s Greetings, which takes the form of a letter from a midwestern housewife to her Christmas mailing list, updating friends and relatives on what’s happened in her family’s lives over the past year. Pretty conventional fare on its face, but once Jocelyn begins describing everything that has happened since the previous holiday, things get pretty crazy. The sudden arrival of her husband’s previously-unknown daughter from a pre-marriage dalliance in Vietnam, along with Jocelyn’s teenage daughter giving birth to a baby she names Satan, are the two events setting the whole thing in motion.

To explain the plot further would be a crime, though I’m sure that’s enough of an explanation to prepare you for what’s in store. Honestly, the humor of this play seemed to land a bit less for me; most of it seemed based on seeing a charming, grandmotherly type say harsh and sometimes downright hateful things in a sweet, happy voice, and having grown up white in rural Virginia, this is something I’ve been seeing all my life. For me, it’s depressingly unsurprising — I felt no shock when that whole Paula Deen scandal went down several years ago — and doesn’t carry the shock factor I think it needs to work as comedy. Your mileage may vary.

Honestly, though, it doesn’t matter — Jacqueline Jones plays the role to the hilt, and despite being onstage by herself in a folksy kitchen setting, she keeps the escalating drama of the narrative rolling. My attention never wavered, and even as I found myself missing the humor in things the majority of the audience laughed at, I hung on her every word just to see how the plot would play out. The ending delivered in a big way. Despite my not laughing as much at this play as it seemed most people did, I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

After an intermission, Robert Throckmorton took to the stage, which had now been transformed into the garish sensory overload of a department store Santa’s workshop. He proceeded to narrate in diary-entry fashion a series of events beginning with his taking a job as a helper in the Santa’s workshop at Macy’s and spinning down a rabbit hole into the dark underbelly of a fascinating behind-the-scenes world most never see.

Throckmorton’s performance as David is incredible; he fits the role to a tee, from his manic nervous energy to his melodramatic mannerisms, both of which pair perfectly with this hyperbolic narrative of a very particular sort of retail hell. Since these are diary entries, and we’re relying on the single actor to communicate a sense of all the other characters he’s playing off in these entries, it’s a high-stakes situation for an actor. Play it wrong, and the whole thing could fall flat.

Instead, we’re right there with David as he deals with his insane co-workers, fights between customers in line, and the notorious “vomit corner,” among many other pitfalls of this job. The additional craziness instilled by the Santa’s workshop setting is certainly a complicating factor here, but as anyone who’s done significant time working retail can tell you, it’s really just a slightly more bizarre version of any retail job.

Director T. Ross Aitken’s decision to have Throckmorton use the entire theatre as his performing space is a big part of what makes this play so easy to connect with. As a viewer, you are literally part of it, as Throckmorton strides with retail-fueled nervous energy up and down the center aisle and even takes a position in the back row for a couple of important moments in the performance.

And just in case I haven’t made it entirely clear, The Santaland Diaries is completely hilarious. All of the humor here hit home for me, partly because of my own lengthy tenure in the world of retail work but more because Sedaris’s incredible wit is brought to such vibrant life by Throckmorton’s performance. I was completely enraptured by this entire play, and was sorry to realize that, as the narration brought us closer and closer to Christmas, it would soon end.

Fortunately, there are still quite a few performances of Santaland Diaries and Season’s Greetings remaining before the show closes on December 22 (extended from its original closing date of December 16). Tickets are going fast, but if you act now, you can get yourself a pair for 11 of the 12 remaining performances. Prices range from $10 to $28 a ticket, and those tickets can be obtained by clicking here. Get yourself an emotional antidote to the holiday-shopping-overdose blues, and head over to the Robert B. Moss Theatre at 1300 Altamont Ave for a welcome comic take on the less-than-perfect aspects of Christmas we don’t usually talk about.

Photos by John MacLellan