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The Santaland Diaries
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-12-10

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Playwright: Steve Scott, adapted from the essay by David Sedaris

At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: $15-45; GoodmanTheatre.org . Runs through: Dec. 30

Ebenezer Scrooge has nothing on Crumpet the Elf.

In 1992, David Sedaris debuted his essay "The Santaland Diaries" on National Public Radio to thunderous acclaim. Even if you've never thought—or don't care—about what really goes on behind the scenes of department store Santa displays, this dark, witty piece based on the author's real-life experience remains positively magnetic. After over two decades, Joe Mantello's hit adaptation of the Sedaris essay makes its way to Goodman. Though a few jokes haven't aged well, to put it mildly, The Santaland Diaries is a hilarious, dirty, worthy counterpoint to Goodman's Christmas Carol.

As a broke actor and new New Yorker with an encyclopedic knowledge of soap operas and no discernible skills, Sedaris needed a job but didn't want to "dress as an object and hand out leaflets." On a dare from his roommate, he called Macy's in Herald Square to answer a job ad. When asked "full time or evening and weekend elf?" Sedaris answered the former, and was thrust into a world of windowless rooms, vomit-infested mirrored corridors and a brightly-lit hellscape of crying children and obsessive parents.

Simply put, Crumpet the Elf was born: a snarky green velvet-clad sprite who made wry observations over cigarettes on his breaks and directed tourists to pop superstar Phil Collins, visiting Macy's Santaland with his daughter.

Now a best-selling essayist and renowned speaker whose engagements regularly sell out worldwide, Sedaris has honed his razor-sharp, oddball sense of humor. The Santaland Diaries is a precursor to the forthcoming literary legend, and Mantello's adaptation ( directed by Goodman Artistic Associate Steve Scott ) is a fast-paced, 70-minute deep dive into the gritty side of holiday cheer. Scott never misses an opportunity for an uncomfortable laugh or a teeth-sucking, cringe-inducing moment.

Only a few bits don't translate to the 2018 audience: At one point, Crumpet compares Christmas-hungry New Yorkers to the special-needs population, and uses the "r"-word to do so. Though Scott had the decency to have actor Matt Crowle wince repeatedly when he said the word, he and Mantello would have done better to cut the bit altogether. Sedaris wrote the essay in a different era, but older scripts must accommodate the time the audience is living in now.

Despite this hiccup, The Santaland Diaries is a fun fit for Goodman's "alternative" Christmas show: edgy enough for younger audiences, with a few gentle moments for the older. Though the one-actor show can be produced with practically no budget, Kevin Depinet has a grand time with the set design, creating a textbook winter wonderland with giant candy canes, twinkling lights and a velvet throne for Santa, of which Crumpet makes liberal use.

Chicago actor Matt Crowle is a worthy Sedaris substitute. Displaying the charisma he's shown throughout the city and on Broadway, Crowle shuffles around in ridiculous green velvet slippers, lighting a smoke as he details everything from flirting with fellow elves to dealing with the casual racism of parents who want an "American" Santa. ( Three guesses as to what that means. ) Crumpet may be worlds away from Bert in Mary Poppins, whom Crowle portrayed at Mercury Theater Chicago last season, but the actor's inherent charm and impeccable timing still translate. All in all, The Santaland Diaries, which Goodman warns is "for mature elves only," is just over an hour of welcome Christmas sarcasm. Fair warning: Those who've worked in holiday retail will need a post-show drink—or six.


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