Delicious Holiday Fare: The Long Christmas Dinner/The Santland Diaries

By on 15 December, 2015 in Art, Fun, Holidays, Lynne Schneider with 1 Comment

Holidays in Montgomery are (luckily) not like “back home” in the frigid north. In the Gump, I get stuck in shopping traffic on the way to play tennis. The typically brief “evening rush hour” expands into the night with shopper-legions who bustle in cozy red sweaters as if it was cold out. Over Thanksgiving weekend, we string festive lights on palmettos and the nubby remnants of crepe myrtles, and we could all paint our lawns a jolly, eco-friendly white, too (2000 sq ft, $79.95 + tax), but we don’t. Best of all, after a hectic holiday week, we can come together in the Cloverdale Playhouse for The Long Christmas Dinner/The Santaland Diaries. This brilliant pairing of one-act plays in congenial company makes for the perfect celebration of the real meaning of the holidays.

Cloverdale Playhouse front photoThe Long Christmas Dinner, funny, sweet and a little melancholy, complements the tart hilarity of The Santaland Diaries. Thornton Wilder’s long look at a low-key wealthy white family contrasts deliciously with David Sedaris’s one-man act. Layne Holley (her real name, but short of co-directing with some Ms. or Mr. Mistletoe, could it be any better?) opens with what she aptly calls “a beautiful cast!”

The fin-de-siecle Midwestern Baird family’s comfort highlights the plight of a frantically unemployed 53-year-old Y2K New Yorker. And the family’s empty, formulaic conversation with one another, words no one at the table really hears, underscores the immediate, intimate connection the lone elf makes with the audience as he brings us into his story. As great as each piece is alone, together they are genius. The differences between them make all the difference.

For the Bairds, nouveau-riche industrialists in the Midwest, “holiday tradition” is a family script that they unconsciously repeat to remind themselves of who they want to become. Their business, a blossoming industrial empire, funds their lavish feast and imposing mansion. Roderick Baird’s new house and new wife Lucia adorn his prosperity in The Firm, a properly stable epithet for the financial armature of his “family.” But “firm” is the last thing they are, for time weighs on the rich, too.

The Baird “family” is implied more than they are present on stage. The unseen members includes servants, neighbors, their whole church congregation, and relatives not present at dinner, some because they were not invited (yet) and some who are dead. The Bairds’ repetitious conversation, with and about the family, unconsciously belies the passage of time.

They seem to want to live in a particular kind of “Never-Neverland,” a paradox where they behold the future bright and wholly before them even as they pretend they have always been rich industrialists. They can live in this Never-land, it seems, only if they never do what they really love or say what they really feel. All the same, the deft signs of aging enacted by the cast, and the fact of death, bring time and loss home for the holidays. That bittersweetness reminds us unsentimentally to tell those we love how we feel.

The Bairds’ manufactured “tradition” leads into the consumer holiday a desperate middle-aged man “without skills” must enter. “Crumpet” is a persona he creates to enter a retail empire he must learn to inhabit. Santaland is an alternative plane every bit as created and rehearsed – and yet real – as the Baird’s “family” narrative. The tree and its maze of roots, the magic star, and Santa’s home are landmarks in a timeless place where no one must say what they really think and feel. When “Crumpet” decides to stop to say goodbye to his manager in the hope that, maybe, that moment in Santaland will mean something to him (forever), he enjoys a barrage of expletives she unleashes on a customer. He scampers away from all that candor as fast as his candy-striped elfen legs can carry him.

Director Eleanor Davis stages a comically bright, colorful piece that contrasts fabulously with the brilliantly (and, yes, beautifully!) enacted coal-dust gray conversation at the Baird board. The elfen monologue stars Gregg Babb, who almost seamlessly embodies the David Sedaris persona I have heard at great length off of CDs in my car. In August, while I drove 1100 miles from the Catskill Mountains to Montgomery, I immersed so deeply and happily in Sedarism that he resonates in my blood. It was a joy to hear and see every bit of that wit and warmth enacted on the Cloverdale Playhouse stage.

There is nothing like Wilder’s soft-touch social critique coupled with Sedaris’s satire to cut through the false cheer of the holiday. Each play is a gem, but taken together they are priceless. Let the angst and bustle of the holiday fade. Through the magic of live theater, we can feel what lies behind the glow of brightly lit palmettos and cropped crepe myrtles, beneath that veneer of white-painted lawns (should any appear…). Our theater shows us the real joy of community and reminds us very gently not to let time pass before we tell those we love how much they really mean to us.

Happy Holidays! The Long Christmas Dinner/The Santaland Diaries will appear next weekend at the Cloverdale Playhouse, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00.

Dr. Lynne D. Schneider, Assistant Professor of English at Alabama State University, moved to sunny Montgomery from the frigid north (Upstate New York), delighted to discover that she had accidentally packed her windshield scraper. She taught at SUNY Delhi, Broome Community College and Binghamton University. She worked for her local newspaper, earned her doctorate at Binghamton, and was Art Editor for BU’s Harpur Palate literary journal. Schneider won a poetry residency at The Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca, New York, and her poetry has appeared in The Patterson Review and other journals. She also published “Stuffed Suits and Hogwild Desire,” a chapter in Kermit Culture, the first scholarly study of Jim Henson’s Muppets.

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  1. Gita Smith says:

    Nicely written review, this. Your writer covered all the bases and conveyed the feelings — as well as the facts — of the two plays.
    Kudos to Greg Babb for a monumental act of memorization and for not trying to copy Sedaris, but for coming up with his own frantic version of Crumpet the Elf. We who live in Cloverdale are immensely fortunate to have this playhouse on our doorsteps.

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