Greg Kotis' The Truth About Santa was a good test of my critical sanctity. Growing up an intellectual theater geek in New York, I basically discovered I was bound for the University of Chicago by seeing Proof and Urinetown (twice each) while in high school. I would draw the somewhat arbitrary line at reviewing Proof scribe David Auburn, whom I studied playwriting with in high school and whose work I directed in college. While I had never met Kotis before seeing The Truth About Santa, the play not only reminded me of what drew me to Urinetown and Chicago, but what the intellectual monstrosity of the school has wrought on me since.
For instance, there's simply no way I can review The Truth About Santa without mentioning Emile Durkheim, whose Elementary Forms of Religious Life hangs over The Truth About Santa as strongly as it hangs over Chicago's core curriculum (and hence all of Chicago's academic experience). References to collective effervescence aside, the best summary of the religious sociology of Durkheim in The Truth About Santa comes from a song lyric by Kotis himself, where his Santa declares, "What strength that some people have come to perceive in me/ Comes from the fact that you people believe in me."
In Kotis' play, the worship of Santa—and your fooling yourself if you think it's anything but worship—fuels his existence (that and the Joy Weed that is the glue that binds his form). Kotis turns Santa into a universal sacred symbol of winter solstice, who literally morphs into a new form every time a new myth comes to dominate a society. In this play, Kotis essentially brings the same intellectually-grounded absurdity to religion that he brought to revolutionary politics with Urinetown.
This off-off-Broadway production of The Truth About Santa is not as universally accessible (i.e. Broadway-ready) as Urinetown. While its roughness around the edges adds an indie charm, it also means the play will have to be tidied up if it wants more life. Its opening is a little too jarring, its performances a little too over the top, and its pacing a little too inconsistent to fully maximize Kotis' intelligent writing and exceedingly sharp sense of humor. John Clancy's production stays true to the Showcase roots of the Kraine Theater, and with Kotis' entire family in the cast it is clear that the ambitious are somewhat lower than the Great White Way (despite his family's qualifications).
Still, there's too much great stuff in The Truth About Santa to be kept off-off-Broadway. While the play's theoretical origins might go over the heads of a larger audience, its zany humor and bitingly cynical view of religion would not. It was that humor and social sensibility that made Urinetown a surprise audience success after its intellectual astuteness made it an even bigger critical success. Likewise, you don't have to know Durkheim to find The Truth About Santa hilarious, or to get its larger message (though it certainly adds another level).
The humor comes from lines like a sibling lamenting that "Luke can smash the laws of physics, confound our sense of reality, and all I can do is make people slightly more pleasant for about a minute or two" (it's kinda boring) and plot points like involving Santa in a paternity battle. It comes from design touches like elves in Crocs, and on-again, off-again intentionally 99-cent store angel halos (part of a generally ingenious costume design by Kotis' wife/fellow cast member Ayun Halliday). It comes from characters and performances as brilliantly rendered as elves Jo-Jo (Clay Adams) and Jim-Jim (Jeff Gurner) and the pseudo-prophet George, whom Kotis himself plays in Ralph Kramden-like fashion.
It's easy to forget that despite his modest profile Kotis is probably the most famous alum of the Neo-Futurists, a radical experimental theater group founded in Chicago that focused on breaking down the divide between "performer" and audience (that doesn't include Stephen Colbert, who was a member for one rehearsal in the early '90s before being pulled back to Second City). After The Truth About Santa, Kotis' next project is the musical Yeast Nation: The Triumph of Life, his second project with Urinetown collaborator Mark Hollman, which premieres in Chicago this spring. It may be that, not wanting to tempt the theater gods (and other gods) too much, Kotis has put all his money on that project returning him to the Promised Land.
But it would be a shame to overlook The Truth About Santa, a play that has every right to become the Christmas Carol (or Mahabharata) for weird theater geeks across the world. Personally, I hope to see The Truth About Santa every winter solstice for years to come, preferably with a more polished script and production. If Seinfeld, a similarly quirky, culturally-specific enterprise, can find a place for Festivus with a universal audience, The Truth About Santa can find a place for classic religious sociology in the mainstream world. You just have to believe.
The Truth About Santa by Greg Kotis; directed by John Clancy; set design by Heather Wolensky; lighting design by A.J. Epstein; costume design by Ayun Halliday. Photos by Colin D. Young
Starring Kotis (George), Halliday (Mary), India Kotis (Freya), Milo Kotis (Luke), Clay Adams (Jo-Jo), Jeff Gurner (Jim-Jim), Bill Coelius (Santa), Lusia Strus (Mrs. Claus).
The Truth About Santa runs through December 20 at the Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street). Tickets can be purchased at www.horseTRADE.info.