Performance review: David Sedaris at the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix, May 10, 2024

posted: May 25, 2024

tl;dr: A pleasant evening of Sedaris reading Sedaris while the audience laughs and sometimes cries along...

I enjoy David Sedaris’s written and spoken essays, but I am far from his biggest fan. Of course I’ve laughed along with his famous NPR essay about his stint as a Christmas elf at Macy’s in New York City. I’ve sampled some of his most recent book, Happy-Go-Lucky, and appreciate the importance he placed upon socializing during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also has what might be called an “old school” understanding of homosexuality, and resists attempts by others to redefine his community and label. So Sedaris and I are somewhat aligned in our thinking. But when my wife bought tickets for us to attend a performance Sedaris gave in Phoenix’s Orpheum Theater, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would he tell jokes? Put on skits or an act? Juggle, perhaps sing a few tunes? Would he be completely solo?

It turns out that what David Sedaris does in his one-man show is what he does best: tell stories. He is first and foremost an author, with a wonderful ability to turn just the right phrase to communicate with his audience in a funny, friendly, touching way. His performance was split into three parts, with book signings both before and afterwards. He started by reading some recent essays, then he read entries from the journal that he uses to record ideas and observations that might someday become parts of essays. Finally, he took questions from the audience, the most interesting of which tried to get him to explain the reasons for his success as an author.

David Sedaris’s essays are personal, and focus on experiences, often mundane but occasionally momentous, that happen to him. He stays away from politics, which is refreshing in this highly-polarized era. He might have made a quick, oblique comment in favor of Israel in its war with Hamas, but it went by so fast (only a handful people caught it and clapped, briefly) that I might have misinterpreted what he said. Comedy is tricky these days. Most comedians play to just one half of the country or the other. Long gone are the days when most comedians would make fun of politicians from both sides of the aisle, while some other comedians avoided politics completely. So in that respect also, Sedaris is old school. Yet he is still quite funny.

The exterior of one side of a theater, with a lighted marquee featuring the theater's name hanging on the side of a stone building with some windows and intricate carvings, with a few people in front about to enter the theater and some modern office buildings in the background

The Orpheum Theater is one of the oldest, most historic buildings in downtown Phoenix

Sedaris seemed fairly comfortable on stage. For the first two parts of his performance, he was reading from printed pages, which lessened the difficulty factor. He did mention how he uses these public performances of still-under-development essays to test them out and refine them to elicit the best audience reaction. For a blogger such as myself, that’s an enviable position to be in. Needless to say my blog posts are not tested and refined in front of multiple live audiences.

I couldn’t see the balcony seats very well, but I would estimate that David Sedaris filled about 75% of the 1,364 seats in the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix. That’s quite a feat: I can’t think of too many non-celebrity authors who could do likewise. This was my first time at an event in Phoenix’s Orpheum Theater, so I spent a considerable amount of time examining the ornate carvings and artwork, which are unlike any theater I’ve seen in Chicago or New York. The very back wall of the balcony is built to look like a small Spanish village. The Orpheum opened in January 1929, less than a year before the Black Monday stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression. It’s especially impressive when you realize how small the population of Phoenix was in that timeframe. I look forward to seeing more events at the Orpheum, and to reading more David Sedaris.