by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
This play is a holiday favorite, particularly for many who don’t much like the holidays. Based on David Sedaris‘ cynical & searing true chronicles of working as an elf at Macy’s during the holidays, the Santaland Diaries were first read on National Public Radio 20 years ago.
In the Frank Theatre production, staged at the Southern Theater, Joe Leary plays Crumpet the Elf, the acerbic aspiring actor cum Santa’s helper at Macy’s. Leary, reprising the role, is excellent. He delivers Sedaris’ stories fluently, his pacing expert. The play opens with Leary getting dressed in his ‘uniform’ for the audience, one striped sock after the other.
Fans of Sedaris will be entertained, the monologues familiar. Much like attending a concert where one knows all the words to the songs. The production is seamless, with few surprises & the set (on a larger stage this year) strikes a balance between imitation & cartoon.
But the humor is definitely adult, with lines like: “The woman in charge of costuming assigned us our outfits and gave us a lecture on keeping things clean. She held up a calendar and said, “Ladies, you know what this is. Use it. I have scraped enough blood out from the crotches of elf knickers to last me the rest of my life. And don’t tell me, ‘I don’t wear underpants, I’m a dancer.’ You’re not a dancer. If you were a real dancer you wouldn’t be here. You’re an elf and you’re going to wear panties like an elf.”
There is enough room for audiences to absorb & react to the quips & barbs. Fast paced, the adaptation moves quickly from anecdote to anecdote, with a satisfying accumulation of punch lines. Those unfamiliar with the work be warned: there is a sardonic edge to Sedaris’ work and the Frank Theatre production that approaches (sometimes surpasses) meanness. Nearly everyone is a target of Crumpet’s disdain, from the catalog of Santas to the sycophantic elves to the unsympathetic parents. Though a segment near the end of the play suggests what Christmas spirit could be like. A Santa, cypher-like, takes his time with the children & seems to evoke a more compassionate Crumpet. The scene helps to balance the production, letting a little light into the holiday.
Crumpet, in an aside, provides insight into his narrative. “It’s not about the child, or Santa, or Christmas, or anything, but the parents’ idea of a world they cannot make work for their children.” Entwined with the sardonic humor is pathos & even some despair. The wit & pace wrap it all up as a present to be torn open.
Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris. Adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello. Directed by Wendy Knox. Presented by Frank Theatre, December 7-30. Information at www.franktheatre.org/.