Review of The SantaLand Diaries at Musical Theatre of Connecticut
Best-selling, Grammy-winning author David Sedaris has come a long way since his stint as an elf in a Macy’s SantaLand, and he’s also come a long way since the humorous essay he wrote about that experience, which has also been shared as a spoken word feature on NPR and This American Life. And yet the story as adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello has taken on a life of its own since its debut in 1996. It’s become a holiday staple for many a theater in the U.S., a one-man show that lets us laugh at the corny traditions that constitute “the Christmas spirit”—a glut of decorations, food consumption, familiar tunes, holiday reruns, and much buying, and sometimes giving, that happens without fail from late in November (or earlier) and runs till December 25th.
Ostensibly all the hoopla has something to do with the birth of Christ, but in fact, in the U.S., it mostly has to do with marketing, as every store in the land, almost, has its Christmas come-on. One of the best-known of all department stores, of course, is Macy’s and one of its ways of celebrating the season and getting people to come in and shop is providing a guy dressed in the traditional garb associated (at least since a very influential Coca-Cola ad campaign anyway) with old St. Nick to meet the kids and listen to Christmas wishes. And it was at Macy’s that Sedaris really did take the job of being one of the helpers of the store’s Santas. The SantaLand Diaries plays as the amusingly jaundiced view of a rather less than inspired elf enduring the fake cheer, the clueless “foreigners,” the pushy and obnoxious parents, the scared or sick or displeased children, and the on-the-job antics of his fellow not-so-bright elves and a variety of Santas.
Taking the name Crumpet, our narrator/hero is at his best in recounting the kind of behind-the-scenes stories that play to our curiosity about “show-biz,” even this far down the food chain. As Crumpet says, many of the people who apply for a job in SantaLand—in New York anyway—are unemployed actors looking for some easy money at Christmastime. It helps, in a job like this, to be willing and able to transform oneself to match one’s costume. Green velvet, with striped stockings, pointy shoes and hat. The works. Crumpet’s tongue-in-cheek approach to the job—and, it seems, to life in general—is his best defense against the simple-mindedness of the task, but he’s also not the kind to fool himself with visions of sugarplums. He sees through everyone and almost anyone can be an occasion for an unflattering anecdote or apothegm.
Much of this material, however, pulls its punches. Rarely is Sedaris’s text truly witty and often an anecdote will sort of fizzle without any real zinger. It’s not really something to fault Sedaris on, since he wrote an essay of observational humor, the sort of thing that plays best as a stand-up monologue, seeming to come off the top of one’s head in the moment of telling. Turned into a play, the monologue has to have more zing, requiring a performer up to the task of taking on the raconteur role while also able to act out other characters who get mimicked by Crumpet. Fortunately Matt Densky, directed by Kevin Connors, has the skills needed to make Crumpet vivid, fun, and a little unsettling.
One of Densky’s strengths in the role is his mimicking ability. He does a number of quick “sketches” of the people Crumpet interacts with, and each one is a spot on “take off,” via vocal mannerism, of an immediately recognizable type. You’ve got to be cheerful to be an elf, but you’ve got to be mercurial to make the story of Crumpet work. Denksy’s got it down. A high point is the rendition of “Away in the Manger” in the manner of Liza Minelli.
Alas, there’s not enough of that sort of thing. You soon find yourself thinking that this material needs to be further adapted—enlarged to make room for Densky’s talent. He exults in the snide manner so much so that you don’t for a minute believe that you’re hearing the really juicy stuff. Most of Sedaris’s observations are pretty anodyne, never really going for the jugular. I know, it’s Christmas and all that and we’re supposed to be looking for the good in everyone, but that’s not Crumpet’s approach. He tends to see the worst in people. Not because he’s vicious but because people tend to live up to his worst expectations. And I can’t help thinking there are naughtier and nastier characterizations that were left out of Sedaris’s text in favor of gentler laughs.
Even so, caricaturing others can seem mean, but Crumpet doesn’t come across that way, primarily because the tone Sedaris, Mantello and Densky create is of someone who wants us on his side. We have to see he’s better than “this,” this job of being an elf, as his giddy glimpses of the training sessions and of the less than inspiring Santas shows. And so we’re eager to hear how he managed it—took on this thankless job and maintained his dignity and his sense of humor. By aiming his humor at others, of course, and the laughter we share with him is laughter at how daft the Christmas season is. It’s supposed to be jolly and merry, like Santa, but often it’s a downer or at least disappointing. So, why not liven it up with Crumpet, a refreshingly honest elf, as eager as many of us are to exit the enforced euphoria come December 25th, and get on with business as usual.
The SantaLand Diaries
By David Sedaris
Adapted by Joe Mantello
Directed by Kevin Connors
With Matt Densky
Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Scenic Design: Carl Tallent; Lighting Design: Joshua Scherr; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling
Music Theatre of Connecticut
December 11-20, 2015