Shitty jobs have always been good fodder for the entertainment business. What with half the sit-coms on television revolving around the workplace and a wide number of indi films being ensemble comedies centering around a bar, restaurant, chain store, or convenience store, having a crappy work environment is something audiences can relate to.
With THE SANTALAND DIARIES, humorist David Sedaris’ dry wit is brought to the theatrical stage in the Joe Mantello adaption of the holiday hit. Directed by local theatre wunderkind Michael Matthews, the one-man show is a mini-tour de force for the play’s star Nicholas Brendon, best known as Xander from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show. He stars as David himself, a nebbish, out-of-work soap opera actor hopeful who, on a dare, applies to be a Macy’s Department Store Christmas Elf. Much to his chagrin he lands the job and spends his holidays with nauseated children, creepy Santa Clauses, racist parents, and enough distaste for the human race to fill a hundred sleighs.
Tackling the role with awkward flair is Brendon, who played awkward for seven years on Buffy. Here, he puts on a squeaky, almost child-like voice to represent the unusually-voiced Sedaris. (This was the only part of the performance I wasn’t fond of.) Playing to the audience, and many times, WITH the audience, Brendon dashes around the stage telling tales of work auditions, haughty co-workers, and the various elves he took a fancy to.
Opening on a minimal stage with a red and green backdrop, Brendon utilizes the space wisely and director Matthews doesn’t make anything too frenetic in order to keep us interested. The focus is Brendon and he charmingly delivers the goods.
Once “David” begins his job, the stage opens up to the set of a fake Christmas village which Brendon also makes good use of, keeping the stories and the action flowing. The only misstep in the production is really the script itself. Essentially a radio-friendly monologue, the anecdotes that are relayed don’t always flow from one to the next. Stories sometimes end without a punchline making for clumsy transitions. The end, especially, doesn’t really tie the show together and just sort of stops abruptly.
Never a guffaw-inducing show, The Santaland Diaries is certainly an amusing confection for the holidays. It will make you smile and goes down as easily as a Christmas cookie. And the stories about the workplace, well, they will certainly have you thinking about past jobs you’ve had and the idiots you had to work with.
I can relate because I worked at the East Coast K-Mart rip-off Caldor, which was my first job ever. When I applied I asked to work in the record department, but was immediately assigned to the Hardware Department, probably the department I was least qualified to be in. When asked if we had a certain tool the best I could do was blindly point toward an aisle and then dash away before they could come back to tell me the item the wanted wasn’t there.
During my sentence, I had two alcoholic bosses, a philandering boss, and crushes on about five different employees. I was the master of the quick checkout as I had fast fingers and was also armed with the ability to perform a job that a ferret could do. Seriously, how hard is it to type in a bar code and throw a dishtowel set into a bag?
When I got over this work environment, I moved on to McDonalds for the summer. It’s hard to dismiss this place of employment because quite frankly, it was pretty awesome. I worked with a number of good friends, I got free food, and my bosses were terrific. Especially the one I had a crush on. And although I was too shy to say or do anything about it, I think he had a thing for me, too. I mean, when I needed the key to the backroom and he was busy fixing a machine, he just told me to fish it out of his back pocket. As a closeted nerd from the East Coast, this was quite a thrill as I got to run my hand over this guy’s backside. How on earth I didn’t see how obvious a tactic this was, I’ll never know, but I damn myself for not making more out of the situation. (Hey, I was only human.)
But if we really want to talk about bad jobs, I will say that there was a position I held at some point in the last twenty years (see how vague) where I was forced to work with a woman that I will call The Sigher. This girl, who was in her mid-forties, couldn’t start the day without a full-on depressed sigh. Actually, she couldn’t start MY day without it. Every morning I’d come in and head to my cubicle. She sat on the other side of me so each day I had to stare at that sad-sack face for eight hours. And like clockwork, I would be just about to sit down when The Sigher would do it. The deep breath in… and the looooooong drawn-out breath out. As if God himself just told her she had to pull a Sissyphus and roll a rock up and down a hill for the whole day.
Worse still, the girl had some sort of Munchausen Syndrome. You know that disease where you purposely make bad things happen so you get attention? Like that mother in The Sixth Sense who made her little girl sick so she’d get sympathy from her friends. Well, The Sigher thrived on the same sort of attention. Now, to be fair, some of it was unavoidable. She had a few tragedies in her life within a small period so that was not her fault, but damn did those same events come up when someone else was getting too much attention. Or when she needed some drama. But it wasn’t even just that. This is a woman that would actually copy the events of other people. And she was so obvious about it that it was almost embarrassing.
For example, one day a co-worker had a panic attack and needed some anti-anxiety meds. Not a big deal. The situation was handled and we all moved on. But a mere hour later, when another co-worker was blathering on about a personal matter, The Sigher decided this was the perfect time to state that the co-worker’s stories were “triggering” some bad memories and suddenly… you guessed it… she needed to take some anti-anxiety meds, too.
One day we had a meeting in our manager’s office. I sauntered in to find The Sigher, always the kiss-ass, already seated with her notebook in hand. To take what sort of notes, I was never clear. Anyway, I sat down and bemoaned the fact that I had a pop song stuck in my head. The Sigher chuckled, clearly starting to get restless with the fact that attention was on me for ten seconds. An hour later, whaddya know? The Sigher had a song stuck in HER head. Not that we have music playing in the office. Not that it was the same song I had stuck. She just randomly had to turn the day around so that it focused on her again.
If all of that wasn’t enough, everything about the work day was drama. She thrived on it. She lived for it. The more out-of-control the better. Every little minute problem became a potential holocaust and she’d run her fat ass into the manager’s office to not only prove she knew the issue occurred first, but also because it created a crisis that she could bemoan all day long. This would lead to more sighing and outbursts of (her own) exasperation.
Thankfully, I escaped the tractor beam of her negativity and am in a much better environment. But I still see The Sigher from time to time and wouldn’t you know it? When I pass by her, I still hear The Sigh. Every. Single. Time.
Lucky for me, instead of feeling a wrench in my chest at the sound of it, I simply roll my eyes and keep moving. And sometimes - when I’m feeling as mischievous as a disgruntled Chrismas Elf - I imagine that as I pass by her and she starts to take in that breath that will eventually be her annoying declaration of woe, I will grab the side of her head and swiftly knock it into the nearest wall.
And as she stares at me slack-jawed and wide-eyed, I’ll get real close to her dumb little face, take a looooong deep breath in, and let it out.
Really… really… slowly.