Review: Santaland Diaries

3 Dec

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If you like your holiday cheer delivered with a little irreverence and a lot of sarcasm, The Santaland Diaries is the perfect gift. It’s sardonic wit and playful skewering wrapped up in a glorious bow. The one-man show, adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello, from writer David Sedaris’ (best known for his achingly funny and wonderful Me Talk Pretty One Day) memoir of the same name, detailing his misadventures as an elf in Macy’s Herald Square’s  Santaland is about as far as the cloying, sticky sweet sentiments of other Christmastime enchantments (I’m looking at you, It’s a Wonderful Life) as it’s possible to get and still be in the same Advent calendar.

Todd Waite is Crumpet, a 43-year-old, unemployed, wanna-be actor, who showed up in New York City, thinking he’d head from Port Authority to the set of One Life to Live in one fantastic afternoon. Not so much. Instead, he finds himself broke, borrowing money from Mom and sweating over the idea that he’s just applied to be an elf for Macy’s …and may not get the gig. Things could be worse. He could be dressed as a taco, shilling pamphlets like some poor saps he sees.

Thank your stars, or God, or Santa or someone that Crumpet gets the elf job. Because the result is a wacky look at human nature, at family traditions, at consumerism and at Christmas. Think of it as that scene in the department store in A Christmas Story writ large. The Santaland Diaries is a funny, biting, deliciously naughty delight. Waite is sharp and wonderful, playing a little with the audience, and running a gamut of emotions through the hour-long performance. He’d get points for sheer stamina in anyone’s book; the fact that he fully embraces the spirit of snark and delivers dialogue with crackling, razor-sharp timing is glaze on the fruitcake.

He brings us along on a wild ride from elf training to working with kids and parents and various Santas, offering up observations about long waits in long lines, an impersonation of Billie Holliday singing “Away in a Manger,” how you train to be a Macy’s elf, and the endless perkiness one must summon to be part of such an environment. If you’ve ever taken your kid to see Santa, you will surely recognize these scenes.

A bare bones set of a comfy Santa chair, and huge ornaments surround the bare Neuhaus Stage. But Karin Rabe Vance’s design is a perfect playground for Crumpet, dressed in a daffy elf costume courtesy of Blair Gulledge. Pierre Dupree’s sound, with everything from a mix of contemporary Christmas songs as the audience enters, to the muffled crowd noises of a busy shopping scene to ever more frantic countdowns of the shopping days left till Christmas help capture the frenetic spirit of Crumpet and the madness in which he finds himself.  Directed with a clear, comic hand by David Cromer, The Santaland Diaries is an off-kilter bit of joy amid more traditional Christmas programs.

The wit and humor are not for everyone. If you don’t like a little bit of mean-spiritedness, or you have a thin skin for wicked joking, this is not your show. If you’re thinking this is a show about how an elf finds the “true meaning of Christmas,” yeah, it’s not. On the other hand, if you like a little sass and spiciness, and are able to look at life and occasionally ask, “What the hell just happened?” this is perfect for you. You should maybe even see it more than once.

You won’t leave The Santaland Diaries somehow filled with hope for all mankind. In fact, you might just question the entire human race. But you may have to dry your tears as you walk out the door – from laughing so hard.


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