Phil Keeling got a very special birthday gift on Oct. 10. Keeling is a big fan of humorist David Sedaris, and on his birthday, he not only got to see Sedaris perform in Savannah, he also got to meet him.
Now Keeling is directing two Sedaris one-person shows, both based on his essays, for the Savannah Actor’s Theatre.
In The SantaLand Diaries, we meet a man who works at Macy’s as one of Santa’s elves. Season’s Greetings is about a woman who shares her non-traditional Christmas newsletter with family and friends.
Stephen Cyr portrays the elf, while Valerie Lavelle portrays the newsletter writer. “It’s kind of a large, very staged reading,” Keeling says. “The actors have their scripts onstage, but they are costumed and there is somewhat of a set up.
“Both plays are manic, kind of fun pieces,” Keeling says. “It’s the kind of thing people will want to see when they’re all stressed out from the holiday season and have heard Little Drummer Boy a thousand times.”
The plays are a departure from most theatrical productions, Keeling says. “There are big, sappy musicals and dark existential pieces that are intelligent and well-written but have you saying, ‘What the hell was that?’ at the end,” he says. “These plays are fun and silly and I think people will come in for a good time.”
In The SantaLand Diaries, the character is a man in his 30s. “It’s during the recession, and he meets people who used to be stockbrokers, lawyers, and are now working as elves, but are trying to be jolly,” Keeling says. “It’s very funny, but at the same time, it can be sad.”
That’s part of Sedaris’s style, to show the bad as well as the good. Seeing Sedaris on his birthday was a real treat for Keeling, who teaches English at Jenkins. “I teach high school and it’s a really rough job,” he says. “He came out and did an incredible reading. I got to meet him after, and he signed some of my books.”
Cyr and Keeling became friends during the production of Looking for Ethiopia. “Stephen is a veteran of Savannah Actor’s Theatre,” Keeling says. “He likes being funny and getting people in a good mood. If there’s anyone I would want to play a snarky elf, it would be Stephen.”
Keeling says Lavelle is “one of the most talented character actresses I’ve ever met.”
“She can play nutty women like no one I’ve ever seen,” Keeling says. “In this play, she plays a woman who’s obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses. She tells us about crazy things, but to her, they’re completely normal. She just blew me away.”
Originally, SAT had planned to stage History of the Devil, and when that production fell through, Keeling decided to direct the Sedaris plays. “They’re 40 minutes each,” he says. “We had just three weeks to get it together and get it done.
“Since we only have an actor for each show, I thought we should be able to put it on in time,” Keeling says. “We got the rights and sent away for the scripts.”
Then a disaster worthy of a Sedaris essay struck -- the scripts never came.
“If this were any other show, any other person, I’d say, ‘We bought the rights, let’s just do it next year,’” Keeling says. “But David Sedaris has the gift of the gab and a style that is unbelievable. Anyone who has read his writing but never heard is completely missing out. Sedaris’s essays are meant to be read aloud.”
Savannah Actor’s Theatre will present two holiday plays -- The SantaLand Diaries and Season’s Greetings Dec. 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. These are rated PG13. Tickets are $15 general admission and $10 students/seniors/military and can be reserved by calling 232-6080. The theater is at 703D Louisville Rd.