A Review by Ann Gabor.
Spoiler alert: Some plot points of the show are discussed below.
It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter. The temperatures are getting cooler. Chicago’s official Christmas tree in Millennium Park has been lit. Residents and tourists alike are wandering around Daley Plaza searching for the Christkindlmarket line that will yield a holiday boot shaped souvenir mug of warm booze. And, Theater Wit’s 12th annual production of The Santaland Diaries has opened.
The Santaland Diaries is a one-man show, adapted by Joe Mantello and directed by Jeremy Wechsler, based on David Sedaris’ short story of his actual tenure as Crumpet, one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s department store. Mitchell Fain kills it in his eighth consecutive season as Crumpet, reminding us, with Sedaris’ signature sarcasm, sardonic wit, and appropriate irreverence, of the shared inhumanity which, well, makes us human. Fain’s performance delivers a certain wine swilling intimacy which reading Sedaris’ story on one’s own does not. And, just as importantly, Diaries reminds us to find the joy in each other, and in the season. Fain effortlessly executes this by starting the show with a shot and a toast, L’chaim, followed by immediate heckling of the audience in the kindest possible manner.
The production follows the fantastically wry and self-deprecating Crumpet’s misadventures when he’s forced to face the indignity of underemployment (a generous term in this instance) as a Macy’s Santaland elf after failing to land a role, and an immediate friendship with Victoria Buchannon, in his dream production, “One Life To Live,” within three weeks of his relocation to New York City. Crumpet manages to retain some self-respect through rationalization. At least he’s not dressed as an object handing out leaflets in the street. He has a place; “I’ll be in Santa’s Village with all the other elves. It won’t be quite as sad as standing on some street corner dressed as a french fry.”
As if a uniform of candy cane striped tights (which Fain pulls off splendidly) and jingle bell booties weren’t enough to endure, Crumpet witnesses a general barrage of human beings either missing the point or operating on the lowest common denominator during what should be, per Andy Williams and over-exuberant radio stations from November through January, the most wonderful time of the year. There’s the seemingly endless trail of self-absorbed parents so focused on the perfect holiday family photo that a Santaland visit turns into an art directed shoot wherein the children barely glimpse Santa let alone have an opportunity for the trip to be about them because they are busy posing at Mom and Dad’s command. There’s the mother that shakes and slaps her crying daughter because, after waiting over an hour in line, she can’t have a bawling child ruin the photo of this ‘memorable’ family holiday experience. There’s the guy from New Jersey who when asked by Santa what he wanted for Christmas yelled “I WANT A BROAD WITH BIG TITS!” causing his small-breasted wife to cross her arms over her chest and look at the floor. Their son tried to laugh. And, there’s the parents requesting a ‘traditional’ Santa, with one woman mouthing to Crumpet “White-white like us.” Crumpet responded with grace and a smile. “Jerome is ready to see you,” he said, as he directed them to a very kind and friendly African American Santa. Crumpet manages, in this manner, to mitigate these injustices toward each other with only the best dark satire.
Mantello’s adaptation deviates from Sedaris’ story by providing redemption on, of course, Christmas Eve. Crumpet closes out his last shift, after working with a host of odd and eccentric Santas, with one benevolent selfless Santa who reminds the audience what the holiday is about. This Santa focuses on the experience, and the people in front of him, and is in the moment. He showers the children, and then their mothers, with attention, and genuine affection. So much so, that the fathers start to feel blessed, and grateful, for the wonderful family they have. The stage lights dim, and Santaland becomes a real wonderland with, what feels like, all ten thousand sparkling lights casting a shine on the perfect Christmas tree, giant rocking chair, cheery train sets, and piles of happy presents. A certain peace falls over the stage, and the audience is reminded, as Fain describes this special Santa, of the power in a single compliment, and in kindness in general. Crumpet is so affected, he delays his hard-earned freedom and stays a few hours after his shift has ended. Reality, not to be outdone, returns to conclude the play. Crumpet hesitates to tell his manager when he must leave to catch his flight. She briefly acknowledges and remains engaged in a customer dispute saying “Don’t tell the store president I called you a bitch. Tell him I called you a fucking bitch, because that’s exactly what you are. Now get out of my sight before I do something we both regret.”
The Santaland Diaries is an outright joy in its humorous, smart, and biting telling of the foolishness and chaos which can unintentionally embed itself in our holiday traditions. However, traditions are generally good. They matter. They bind us together with commonalities that remind us, regardless of how far apart we are, we’re all in this together. They’re a touchstone as time passes; the comfort that, while all things change, some things stay the same. Diaries, in and of itself, is a worthy annual holiday tradition. It is crude honesty in its purest and most pleasurable form.
The Santaland Diaries runs November 20th through December 30th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. For tickets and showtimes, click here.