Story: What’s worse than not being in the holiday spirit? Not being in the holiday mood while being unemployed, that’s what. Such is the case for our intrepid protagonist, who is tired of calling home to Mom from his New York City apartment to ask for another loan to make the rent. So, when he sees an ad for workers wanted for seasonal employment at Macy’s, he subjects himself to the rigorous if somewhat bizarre interviewing process.
Voila! He is now officially known as Crumpet, a not-so-merry ‘elf’ who finds himself assigned to an amazingly wide assortment of jobs assisting jolly St. Nick at the sprawling department store. Crumpet makes acerbic observations of his fellow elves, the myriad employees portraying Santa Claus, the rude, lewd and crude assortment of parents (along with some gentler souls) and even the tykes who pay the white-bearded chap a visit with requests for those special holiday gifts only he can provide. It’s all in a seasonal day’s work.
Highlights: The Santaland Diaries has been a yuletide staple since humorist David Sedaris first narrated his witty, satirical look at the commercial side of Christmas on National Public Radio in 1992. It’s been a regular on local stages for several years now, not exactly A Christmas Carol with its saucy, irreverent and caustic humor but rather a source of great merriment for mature audiences.
Evidence of that popularity was a virtually sold-out performance on a recent Thursday evening, with the Tower Grove Abbey bursting to accommodate an audience that thoroughly enjoyed the one-act monologue delivered in fine, ‘flip’ fashion by Ben Watts as the curmudgeonly Crumpet.
Other Info: Directed smartly by artistic director Gary Bell, Watts regaled the audience with Sedaris’ wry observations as adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello. Essentially a series of vignettes that recount the author’s experiences working at Macy’s in its Santaland section, the material was delivered smartly and amusingly by Watts, whose interpretation seemed a bit brittle and more acerbic than others I’ve observed but nonetheless enthralling in its own fashion.
Watts is the focal point of the presentation, but its technical aspects suitably support his splendid portrayal. The festive set designed by Jay Hall festoons the tall stage area with an assortment of candyland and yuletide decorations at center stage, with a tiny dressing area at stage left where Crumpet dons the garishly amusing garb designed by costumer Nicole Winning. Tyler Duenow’s lighting illuminates the expansive stage but also can pinpoint more poignant moments when Watts is recounting some tender scenes, particularly with a Santa who truly understands the season’s meaning. Amanda Bruggeman’s clever sound design offers a range of Christmas tunes both classic and contemporary, while Bell’s properties enhance Hall’s colorful set.
For anyone who’s seen this new holiday favorite, The Santaland Diaries brings a hearty laugh or a welcome smile at Sedaris’ insightful reflections. For the first-time viewer, it’s an evening both of ribald humor and sweet enchantment.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: December 15, 16, 17
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Photos courtesy of John Lamb