More naughty than nice, the hit play “The SantaLand Diaries” was adapted by Joe Mantello from David Sedaris’ National Public Radio holiday tradition of the same name, and will be touring north-central Vermont this month.
“In Vermont we love our David Sedaris,” explains Jason Lorber, who gets to play the unfortunate actor-elf in this one-man comedy.
“The challenge is also the joy of finding out the funny bits and the truth that underlies it,” he said recently by phone. “We laugh at something because it makes us uncomfortable — and David does not sugarcoat things.”
“Bring your entire dysfunctional family,” added Margo Whitcomb, who is directing, “Although probably not your kids. No, definitely don’t bring kids.”
“The SantaLand Diaries” opened Friday at Randolph’s Chandler; it’s at the Grange Hall Cultural Center in Waterbury at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, and at 2 p.m. Sunday. The show moves to Burlington’s Off Center for the Dramatic Arts at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Dec. 21, and 2 p.m. Dec. 22; and at 7:30 p.m. Friday Dec. 20 at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.
The show exposes the underbelly of life working as an elf at Macy’s SantaLand, based on Sedaris’ first-hand experience. A favorite of NPR and a frequent performer in Vermont, Sedaris had his “SantaLand Diaries” essay turned into a play by Mantello. It has since been featured in cities across America as an annual event since 1996.
“It’s just such a marvelously satisfying little naughty and anti-holiday classic that’s both hilarious, and silly to see a grown man in an elf’s costume, but also in Sedaris’ typical style, a real cultural critique wherein everyone gets offended,” explained Whitcomb, who has directed the show previously.
“Sedaris is an equal opportunity offender.”
Whitcomb is a veteran actor and director. In Vermont, she has directed productions for Vermont Stage, Vermont Shakespeare and Lost Nation Theater, among others. For her, the show requires a very adept actor who has great comic skills and timing.
“But, unlike a lot of comedy, it’s really got depth to the writing,” Whitcomb said. “It’s really a literary satire, so it really needs to be somebody who understands the nuances of language. It’s satire more than it’s sketch comedy.”
Whitcomb was familiar with Lorber’s work both as a comic and as an actor. In addition to performing with Vermont professional theater companies, including Vermont Stage, Lost Nation Theater and Middlebury Actors Workshop, Lorber opened for Joan Rivers when she performed at Burlington’s Flynn Center.
“I was really struck by his native comic timing and his intelligence — and his warmth,” Whitcomb said. “Truth be told, it should be performed by a young man who’s 33, as written. Obviously, Jason is considerably older than that — and, in some ways, that makes it a little bit more pathetic.”
“The funniest parts, as a comedian, are when I’m dead serious,” Lorber said. “I can laugh at myself or I can allow the audience to laugh at me — and be vulnerable.”
Defining his comedy, Lorber remembers writing in college about his worst job interview ever, where he would be expected to work for next to nothing doing things he hated.
“Here I was, groveling for this job in this interview, and I wrote about this experience. I was like, ‘This is so depressing!’” Lorber said.
His feedback from the class: “This was hysterical!”
“And, guess what, I didn’t get the job!” Lorber said. “We are just falling on our faces, and everyone would laugh. And that is what this play allows us to do: laugh at ourselves.”
Lorber, who lives in Burlington, was born in Philadelphia and grew up in southern California.
“My husband-to-be got a job at this place called Saint Michael’s College,” he said, referring to Nathaniel Lew, director of the vocal ensemble Counterpoint. “He said it was in Vermont, and I said, ‘What state is that in?!’ So we moved to Vermont 17 years ago.”
Lorber had acted since childhood, whether community theater or in college. In graduate school, working on his MBA, there wasn’t time to be in a play.
“But I could do standup,” he said. “I love acting, I love performing.”
Friends urged Lorber to become a comedian, so he tried it, performing a five-minute set for an open mic at a comedy club.
“I was hooked,” Lorber said. “After I did it, probably about 10 times, the manager came up to me and he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come back on the weekends?’ That’s like for-real shows. ‘And I’ll pay ya.’ I said OK!”
When Lorber moved to Vermont, there were no comedy clubs, so he had to produce his own shows, teaming up with the likes of comic Josie Leavitt.
“Over time, the comedy scene opened up,” Lorber said. “There was a time when I was performing once or twice a week for a couple years — in Vermont! But my friends in New York were doing one or two shows a night.”
“In Vermont, you have to build it yourself — but you get to build it yourself, because things aren’t at New York prices,” Lorber said. “That’s one of the things I love about Vermont: We get to do what we want to do — that’s how ‘The SantaLand Diaries’ came about.”