David and Amy Sedaris share a slightly skewed view of life and theater.Eccentricity among creative siblings is nothing new. Charles Lamb enlisted his sister Mary's help on Tales from Shakespeare largely to keep her out of Bedlam. The Brontes had all sorts of weird goings-on in the moors to fuel Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
But these are minor tics compared to whatever Amy and David Sedaris had to deal with in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the 1970s.
Crazy Greek grandmothers, hookers over for Christmas dinner, summer jobs at the local asylum — millions now know about the Sedarises' skewed childhood, courtesy of Naked, David's best-selling collection of essays. His books (Barrel Fever and Holidays on Ice, a new collection of Christmas stories due in November from Little, Brown) and regular appearances on National Public Radio have gotten the most attention, but he and Amy's collaborations as the Talent Family have resulted in some of the most side-splitting, deviant, intelligent theater New York has seen in a while.
Not counting Joe Mantello's staging of David's Santaland Diaries at the Atlantic last winter, the Talent Family has produced about a dozen stage and radio pieces, most recently as part of last summer's Lincoln Center Festival 97. But for a real dose of Sedaris mayhem, head down to the Talent Family's home base of La MaMa. There you'll see Amy and a handful of other actors launch into such finely honed bits of depravity as the Obie-winning One Woman Shoe and the Lincoln Center piece, The Little Frieda Mysteries. Welfare mothers, self-mutilation, rapist donkeys — nothing is taboo, everything is a potential source of humor.
After maintaining a relatively steady pace of one show per season, they just completed a one-year period that included Santaland, Little Frieda, and Incident at Cobbler's Knob at Lincoln Center, plus the publication of David's Naked and Holidays on Ice, which includes "Season's Greetings," a brilliant faux, holiday form letter that was originally to make up half of the Santaland evening. Wary of overexposure, Amy now says, "We're gonna wait a while" before writing a new theater piece.
When I met up with the Sedarises in early fall, Amy's tone was a bit chastened. Cobbler's Knob was the first Talent Family show to venture out of the East VIllage, and the critical response was not as unanimously enthusiastic as it had been for the La MaMa shows.
A quick digression on the vagaries of off-off-Broadway reviews: The big Broadway shows get reviewed. Period. Same thing with the larger off-Broadway houses — Playwrights Horizons, Primary Stages, and now Blue Light and Drama Dept. But the small stuff is treated differently. Runs are shorter. Budgets are lower. Expectations are adjusted accordingly.
So if a critic sees something so-so (or worse) deep in Soho and knows it will be gone the following weekend, no great effort is expended in blasting it. But if it deserves to be seen, the critic waves his or her hands and shouts, "Get down/up/over here and see this now!" Such has been the life of the Talent Family for the last few years.
All of a sudden, though, Cobbler's Knob was being compared not with fellow off-off-Broadway companies but with the Lincoln Center Festival's international lineup of heavyweights. And so the Sedarises emerged with a handful of mixed-to-negative reviews. A perfectly respectable batch, unless you're used to consistent love letters.
(David found himself in a similar position when Barrel Fever came out. The NPR audiences that had chuckled to "The Santaland Diaries" bought the book to find "Santaland" mixed in with some fairly explicit homoerotic pieces and other not-for-public-radio offerings. "I got letters from people who bought the book after hearing 'Santaland' and hated it so much they sold it to their children. Didn't even give it to them or throw it at them. Sold it to them.")
Like many experimental theater companies, the Talent Family has a taste for the vulgar. But as saucy as Amy's characters get — one recurring character, the pig-nosed Tula Saccas, elicits scandalized whoops from the audience before she even opens her foul mouth — it never degenerates into filth. (One idea that has been tossed around involves contriving a situation wherein Tula can't curse.) Like Kevin Smith, the Sedarises maintain a dizzying combination of dexterous wordplay and jaw-dropping profanity.
Audiences visibly tense up only when race enters the picture. The white-trash witches of Cobbler's Knob are big hits until one refers to another as "more fucked up than a nigger's checkbook." The crowd quickly divides into belly-laughs and tentative, slightly mortified chuckles — or silence.
David defends the occasional red-letter word as useful: "We don't come in and say, 'How can we shock these people?' That's not interesting. But that's a word that Amy's character would say. It's just realistic to the character. You can say the word 'motherfucker' a million times and no one would care, but say 'nigger' and people really perk up." Any concerns that Lincoln Center audiences wouldn't get it? "We just hoped that the seats were so steep that the old people would be too tired to get up and leave," David says dryly.
Neither David nor Amy has much in the way of theatrical training. "I don't think we have figured out what we're doing yet," he says. "I'm fascinated with the idea of a dramaturg. My understanding is that they stand around and say, 'That's been done in Hamlet' or something like that. I don't really know what one is, but I love the name."
Amy seems interested in this and wants to know more. "Wait, this is the director?"
"No, he's another guy who knows things."
"So he's sort of like a coach?" "More like a good editor. I think."
Not counting a childhood revue at the aforementioned grandmother's nursing home called Getting to Know You, the Talent Family began in earnest about 10 years ago, while David and Amy were living in Chicago. (Amy was performing with Second City at the time; she has since appeared in the bizarre Comedy Central series Exit 57.) They pieced together a few monologues and pieces — "more like readings, really," she says — and performed them there. When David moved to New York, Amy would take a leave from Second City and come do the occasional Talent Family show for a few weeks.
Meryl Vladimir of La MaMa saw one of these early works and invited them to stage Stump the Host at her theater; they have been the resident company ever since, putting on Stitches, One Woman Shoe, and Little Frieda.
Each new piece begins with Amy's character, and the two brainstorm and riff off of that. "We do that at night," she explains, "and David takes notes. Then during the daytime, he'll write out what we came up with."
"Coming up with the depth of different characters — that's more what Amy does, while I write the dialogue," he adds.
"I think I'm more visual," notes Amy. "He sees the words on paper, and I see them more on stage. We talk about it and talk about it and keep adding new ideas and changing it, and by the time David gets it all down, it's pretty close to the wire. And then David does rewrites all the way up to opening." It doesn't help that time is often tight — they got access to the Lincoln Center stage a day before Cobbler's Knob opened.
David and Amy both think the plays have become more cohesive since their early pieces ("They have more of an ending and stuff," as David put it), which they credit largely to their collaborators — specifically director Hugh Hamrick, who has directed the last five Talent Family shows.
Still, Amy is ambivalent about their work seeming too polished: "People would think we were taking ourselves way too seriously, and nobody would show up. They'd be like: 'Do they think they can write a play?' David never said he was a playwright. We put on shows, and we take it seriously, but we kind of 'play' at playwriting."
"I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite," says David, "but after a while, nothing's gonna be gained by it. I'm more inclined to hate everything. I see it the first night and like it, but I turn my back on it for five minutes and it's my enemy."
The Sedarises clearly aren't averse to greater popularity; they just never quite seem to get around to it. Producers have discussed moving the last few shows, but David calls the process "a lot more complicated than we ever thought it would be.
"We always hope our plays will move or someone will be interested," he says. "La MaMa gives us $2000 to put up a show, and we get half the door. We split that between the actors and the stage manager. And we forget that La MaMa's nonprofit, so we don't have to worry about the insurance for the theater. We don't have to worry about selling the tickets. We don't have to worry about cleaning the theater. And once you take all that stuff into consideration, then at a medium-sized theater, you'd have to have a ticket price of, like, $55."
When they're not doing a show, Amy waitresses and auditions, and David has the NPR gig and book royalties. Amy: "You don't make money doing a show at La MaMa once a year. We put some of our money into the shows in the end if we have to. David makes zero money off it."
"We should have declared ourselves nonprofit..." he begins.
"... But all of that is so complicated and time-consuming," she sighs. "Hey, do dramaturgs do that?"