Are you ready to laugh to your heart’s delight? If I had to sum up David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries into one word, it would be H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S! In fact you might as well take my word for it, go see the show for yourself, and forget reading the rest of this review. But since you’ve already come this far, you might as well read on and learn more about this humorous one-man-show, directed by Jeremy Wechsler and adapted by Joe Mantello, playing at Theater Wit in its 7th consecutive year.
Mitchell Fain returns again playing Crumpet the Elf, a seemingly regular guy looking for some extra employment opportunities during the busy holiday season at Macy’s. He portrays Sedaris’ own experience working there with such wit that you are literally laughing in your seat for over three quarters of the play.
Immediately walking into the theater, you feel as if you have yourself stepped into Macy’s. A recording on the loud speaker tells you you can get a glimpse of Donald Trump’s “signature men’s suits collection” in “Men’s on 3” at “Macy’s: making holiday spirits bright.” The tonal voice is so fitting of a department store that even before the play starts you are laughing at the cleverness. When Mitchell Fain walks in shaking a martini from behind the curtain in just a way that looks more like a man masturbating, you know you’re in for a night of comedy. His recollections of his process to becoming an elf at Macy’s over the Christmas season, from urine drug tests to multiple choice personality tests, uncovers the hilarious truth to what a person must go through in order to undergo the ‘lofty’ process of becoming an elf. Who knew there was so much competition out there?! The show begins with Fain (as David Sedaris) recollecting his rather dismal experience of becoming an elf, and he progressively takes us to the actual time and place when he was an elf at Macy’s. He goes through the process and reinvents it in such an organic way that you follow along with Fain every step of the way. When he puts on his red and white stalkings, joker looking jingle-bells hat, and green velvet leotard, you can’t help but laugh in self-pity. ‘Poor guy, oh the troubles you were forced to go through!’ is the essence of the emotional response he instills in the audience. At one point, Fain even pulls down a fully constructed map of Macy’s Santaland, with pictures indicating where each elf is to be located (Pointer Elf at one corner, Exit Elf at another, etc.), compelling you to further empathize with him over how ridiculously absurd his job is and how unnecessarily serious his managers take it to be.
The impersonations Fain does of the customers at Macy’s as well of his fellow elves and Santas are absolutely hilarious. From mimicking the snobby, New York posh ladies in their mid-20’s to the foreigners in Macy’s who have zero clue as to what is going on (so they just smile and nod, according to Crumpet), every one of Fain’s recollections will make you chuckle in full understanding. One of the funniest parts of the show is when Fain mocks his Santa colleagues as they degrade him with their fully rehearsed and totally disgenuine reference to him: “oh little elf, L-I-T-T-L-E elf!” they say with a smile fakely glued to their face. While we probably can’t relate to Crumpet’s life in exact terms since most of us have probably never had the (oh-so-lovely) opportunity to be an elf at a department store before, it’s easy to relate to the fakeness and contrived glee he finds in his co-workers with those people we too encounter in our lives.
Fain also does a great job of improvising, incorporating current events and pop culture into the show. His references to, for example, Bristol Palin, civil unions, and Cher in “Burlesque” enable him to relate to the audience in a more intimate way, adding further depth to David Sedaris’ already well-written comedy. Furthermore, Fain’s bravado to actually get in the audience’s face and step outside the boundaries of the stage add further fun to the whole theatrical experience.
At times, the lack of political correctedness startled me and made me a bit uncomfortable, but I suppose that is what one expects out of comedy, right? Or maybe not. The references to the mentally retarded and the comparison of Macy’s long lines to those of Auschwitz camp prisoners made me wriggle around in my seat in uncomfort. But in praise to the play, those few moments were really the only instances of criticism I had.
Ultimately, what writer Sedaris and actor Fain do best is their ability to discuss the events at Macy’s and the people going through there with such clarity and precision that the audience totally gets it. We’ve all seen the people being talked about---the overly neurotic parents who not only direct their children on how exactly to sit on Santa’s lap but also proceed to take forty five snapshots of the same exact portrait , the people (elves in this case) who take their jobs way too seriously and talk in way too happy of a voice. The humor is there because each description is so true and we can envision ourselves right in the midst of it all. Each account brings to light how pathetic our culture can be and how we as individuals have adopted rather odd habits in our efforts to further cultivate ourselves to society’s standards.
Overall, the audience is able to take on both the desperation and jest that Crumpet evokes. We are with Crumpet every step of the way---he shares his story so adequately that we are fully in sync with him. We understand his cynicism and we pity him, but we also laugh along with him, because he helps us understand just how silly his job is. David Sedaris brings a winning memoir to the stage and Fain brings that story to light with such ease and wit that you just don’t want the show to end. Go see it for yourself! And let yourself savor in this wintry holiday season with a hearty laugh.
Note: as I was halfway through writing this review at a café in Andersonville, Mitchell Fain, THE Crumpet the elf, walked in and sat down at the table next to me. Can you say, coincidence, or what?!?! Needless to say, in real life he is not a cynical elf but rather a very nice gentleman. Mitchell, if you are reading this, hello again!
The Santaland Diaries (November 26-December 31)
Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont, Chicago IL 60657 | 773-975-8150
Photos by Johnny Knight