BWW Reviews: Open Stage Rings a Sleigh Bell With THE SANTALAND DIARIES
For those whose holiday season is not complete without a few manic - or is that maniac? - elves, relief is at hand, as Open Stage of Harrisburg has seen fit to revive THE SANTALAND DIARIES by David Sedaris (adapted for stage by Joe Mantello), directed by Donald Alsedek and starring previous offender Stuart Landon as the hapless David and his professional alter-ego, the rapidly-devolving Crumpet the Elf.
Sedaris rose to prominence as a humorist on National Public Radio, partly through his reading of an essay (or short story, depending on whose view of Sedaris' world you believe) called "SantaLand Diaries" in 1992. The essay described the world of a young writer, presumably Sedaris himself, who, coming to New York and not becoming employed by the television show he wanted to work for - "One Life to Live" - found unexpected work as a seasonal elf in Macy's SantaLand at the Herald Square Macy's. When Mantello turned the essay into a monologue for Atlantic Theater Company and it was performed in 1996 by Timothy Olyphant, a new seasonal classic was born.
THE SANTALAND DIARIES is now a staple of regional and school theatres (although this reviewer does not wish to contemplate the cuts that must have to be made to satisfy the average high school's administration's sensibilities, now that a drama teacher in Ohio has been fired for putting on a school-pre-approved production of "Legally Blonde"), and with this as its second year at Open Stage, perhaps it will become a staple of the Central Pennsylvania holiday season as well. With Stuart Landon as the David/Crumpet monologist (and occasional ad-libber to various audience jibes), it may be destined to play as long as audiences will come, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Far worse, and far less humorous, fare has been delivered to the region more than once under the guise of Christmas spectaculars; while this show is much smaller and less spectacular than those presentations, it's funnier than all of them put together.
Because, let's face it, what is funnier than watching an elf - even a human avatar of elfdom - go straight down the tubes as Christmas approaches? Not much. And the sight of a human elf-to-be transforming into one, into the somewhat misfit Crumpet no less, on stage, right down to "David's" classic Grinch boxer shorts and then into Crumpet's striped tights, is darned close to hysterical. It also leaves open "David's" early question - what's worse, applying to work as a Macy's elf or being turned down for the job after applying?
In the process of explaining elf training, Landon as "David" performs some striking impressions of the characters with whom he's forced to interact, including a cheerleading trainer with a case of "Gimme an S! A! N! T! A!", a jaded Macy's cash register clerk, and others. As Crumpet, his impression of crooning as Billie Holiday when forced to sing "Away in a Manger" by a slightly off-center Macy's Santa is even more ridiculous - and completely delightful.
Whether monologizing as the pre-elfdom David, or the post-elf-training Crumpet, trying to explain his elfin torments during his breaks at an increasingly busy and insane Macy's SantaLand, our hero engages in some fine moments of physical comedy, including wrestling with a giant inflatable Christmas penguin and waving... and wavering... for hours at SantaLand's Elf Island.
He's also a keen observer of the vagaries of parents and children - especially small ones - at holidays, whether the children are suffering from their parents' neurotic need to capture the visit to Santa on video so perfectly that the kids can't enjoy themselves, or whether parents or children are confusing the environment inside SantaLand with an actual outdoor experience seeking Santa. (The ramifications of this confusion are best left out of this discussion and saved for Crumpet's explanation.) The vagaries of the childless singles, the couples, and various other groups also making their way through SantaLand's lines are also explored in painstaking detail, allowing the audience to do quick self-checks for their own normalcy.
Normalcy is not a term associated with most of the other elves, as Crumpet tells it, or of the various Santas - the drinkers, the think-I'm-really-Kris-Kringles, the would-be-family-therapists, and others in the red suit, who along with the press of customers and their children, work at driving an elf to the verge of insanity. No wonder, while lounging and lolling on Santa's giant throne like a demented Sally Bowles in green velvet, Crumpet digresses into the cheerful fantasy of not SantaLand but SatanLand taking over Macy's.