‘The Santaland Diaries’ brings adult humor to holiday season

December 20, 2018

Before he was the David Sedaris, the famed humorist worked odd jobs here and there to make ends meet.

One of the more memorable jobs involved working as an elf in Santaland, a Christmas display at Macy’s.

After dealing with hordes of children, their cranky parents, his fellow elves and a variety of Santas day in and day out, Sedaris took to his notebook to help him cope.

He would eventually compile these recollections into a story called “The Santaland Diaries,” starring a disgruntled elf named Crumpet.

Sedaris read the piece on NPR’s “Morning Edition” just before Christmas in 1992, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sedaris has released nearly a dozen collections of essays and stories since then, most recently, “Calypso” in May, and “The Santaland Diaries” has continued to be broadcast regularly.

Since 1996, thanks to actor/director Joe Mantello, “The Santaland Diaries” has also found a life on stage as a one-man show.

For the third time, Moscow Art Theatre (Too)’s production of “The Santaland Diaries” will take over the Kenworthy Performing Arts Center. This year’s production features three shows only, Friday and Saturday.

Also for the third time, artistic director David Harlan will don Crumpet’s costume – a bright yellow long-sleeve shirt topped with a black velvet tank top with red and white trim, matching shorts, red-and-white-striped leggings, green slippers with bells on the toes and a blue hat – which was designed by Adriana Sanchez.

Harlan performed “The Santaland Diaries” for the first time in 2014.

He was looking for a Christmas show with humor and a small cast and decided the Mantello adaptation fit both of those criteria.

Harlan and Moscow Art Theatre (Too) presented the piece again in 2016.

Harlan keeps coming back to “The Santaland Diaries,” and the role of Crumpet, because he likes how the story doesn’t sugarcoat the cynicism that often arises around the holidays.

“There’s a lot of cynicism, and for good reason, around the holiday season and yet also for good reason, there’s a lot of goodwill,” he said. “That’s what makes the show, the story special to me.”

Harlan sees the show as a great acting exercise too because of the variety of emotions Crumpet experiences throughout the play.

Beginning with disbelief that he’s actually applying for a job at Santaland to nervousness during the job interview to shock when he’s offered a position to “a different flavor of disbelief” during training and the aforementioned cynicism when encountering children and their parents to, finally, a big realization about Santa Claus, Mantello’s adaptation follows Crumpet every step of the way.

“The adaptation and the original ideas give me these chances to live these moments in silence outside of the words,” Harlan said. “There’s some of these moments where the shock gives me a chance to turn out to the audience and let that reaction land on me and hopefully that lands on the audience.”

Harlan also enjoys the opportunity to work within a somewhat sparse set.

There’s Santa’s throne, surrounded by toys and a Christmas tree, of course, but the rest of the stage features just a few rehearsal blocks wrapped like Christmas presents here and there.

As such, it’s Harlan’s job to set the scene for the audience, letting them know when they’ve moved from a coffee shop to the Macy’s training classroom or lunchroom to, ultimately, Santaland.

“It’s my responsibility to endow them with the location that they are at that time in the script,” Harland said. “It’s really fun as an actor. It’s an enormous amount of fun.”

As noted on the Kenworthy website, “The Santaland Diaries” is “probably safe for your sophisticated teen, but some topics might confuse or disturb younger children.”

Harlan said there’s a place for holiday events or productions marketed as “family fun,” which usually means they’re for children.

But he also believes that a lack of holiday entertainment for adults has helped boost the popularity of “The Santaland Diaries” year after year.

“‘Santaland’ gives vent to this cynicism that we know exists in our society around the holiday and yet doesn’t pander to it and yet asks people to remember that it’s not all cynicism,” Harlan said. “That’s what’s so wonderful about it.”

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