Written by David Sedaris
Hyper shoppers, schizoid Santas and horny helpers – oh my!
|Theater Wit presents|
Review by Lawrence Bommer
Debuting a dozen years ago in a Roadworks Productions premiere, Joe Mantello’s adaptation of David Sedaris’ Yule-phobic 1992 screed is a kind of “Misery on 34th Street” that has perversely become a hilarious Christmas classic. Riffing on Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” this careening 70- minute monologue depicts the breakdown of a hopeful writer as his 44-year-old soul shrinks to become a Macy’s holiday elf named Crumpet.
Dedicated to Crumpet’s own “woeful unemployment,” this year’s edition updates Sedaris’ true-life, sardonic expose of the lies that keep the season merry, the unemployment that makes it not and that forces college grads to dress as elves, and the homophobia directed against the outcast reindeer with the red nose (“Rudolph, it gets better!”) with references to the now-disgraced Elmo as well as some now historical soap operas.
As we discover the Magic Window, the Great Tree, and the Vomit Corner, Jeremy Wechsler’s escalating staging detonates Sedaris’ catalogue of hyper customers, schizoid Santas, horny “helpers,” and children desperate to believe (despite the consumer mania that infects them early). We learn the creepy fact that almost 1/3 of Santa’s visitors are adults, wanting to return to their childhood a bit too literally. Then there are the entitlement-fueled customers who want a racially compatible Santa—on the spot. There’s also a too-brief bit about backstage romance involving an irresistible elf named Snowball, a potentially homoerotic segment that seems to shrink with each edition.
Sly and effortlessly endearing, Mitchell Fain plays the audience like a mouth harp, mischievously relishing the delicious details and shock effects of Sedaris’ naughty confession. He has nailed Joan Rivers’ passive-aggressive style of taking the crowd into her confidence and then attacking them for daring to be shocked. Not since John McGivern’s sassy stylist in Shear Madness has an actor so completely captivated his customers. The real Macy’s miracle is that there’s still some room for unforced sentiment, as Fain describes a Santa who actually cares about the kids.
As seemed true last year, this season’s un-PC follies seems industrially efficient, or else Fain needs to slow down the frenetic pace and make sure the ad libs are audible. (Of course, Sedaris only wrote 24 pages, a lot less than Dickens’ 80-so pages for his holiday triumph.)The Gogol short story upon which Santaland Diaries is based on depicts an obscure government clerk who slowly goes crazy with each diary entry, finally believing that he’s the long lost heir to the throne of Spain. Sedaris doesn’t go that far: He never gives Crumpet delusions of grandeur that he’s really Kris Kringle or that it would make no difference if he’d never been born or that a happy ending can retroactively forgive a miserly existence. (We leave that to three other Christmas classics.)
But, even though Crumpet isn’t institutionalized at the end, the disillusionment that Sedaris means to convey doesn’t quite escalate into the Christmas chaos that it promises to become. Perhaps it’s just as well: At the end the sardonic storyteller surrenders to the season’s sentiment (and avoids any accusations of undue negativity) by depicting an authentic Santa Claus whose unstoppable goodness briefly makes Macy’s feel a lot less mercenary. It’s one more essential episode in “This American life.”
Santaland Diaries continues through December 30th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and 9:30pm, Sundays at 3pm and 7pm. Tickets are $18-$35, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheaterWit.org. (Running time: 1 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)
behind the scenes
Jeremy Wechsler (director)