THE SANTALAND DIARIES at Theatre Wit, Review – A Humorous Modern-day Holiday Classic

 

For many people the holidays are not “the most wonderful time of the year”, but the most “stressful” time of the year. That’s why a short story entitled The Santaland Diaries by a little known writer back in the early 90’s struck such a huge chord with America. The story, which has been adapted for the stage and playing at Theatre Wit until December 28 for its 11th straight year, is based on the comic writer David Sedaris’s own hilarious account of his time working as an elf named “Crumpet” at the Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan one holiday season.

 

Mitchell Fain stars in Santaland Diaries

 

The Santaland Diaries describe the surreal and amusing work routine of having to steer hordes of children and their pushy parents (along with a colorful array of other types of visitors) to meet a department store Santa Claus. Along the way he gives us a biting, entertaining, and surprisingly warmhearted look at the odd behaviors of frazzled families around the holidays and of his co-workers. Those fellow employees ranged from unemployed actors looking to pay the bills to a man who truly believed he was the real Santa Claus.

 

Santaland is included as a selection in Mr. Sedaris’s book, “Barrel Fever”, an early collection of his short stories. Mr. Sedaris has had many best sellers of his stories published ever since (I highly recommend Me Talk Pretty One Day to anyone who might be interested). But Santaland is the story that really catapulted Mr. Sedaris’s fame as a comedic writer, especially after he first read excerpts from the story on National Public Radio back in 1992.

 

And while the essay itself might not replace Charles DickensA Christmas Carol as a traditional jolly holiday classic, its contemporary look at the stresses of the holidays will easily be relatable to almost everyone in the audience, particularly those who have ever worked in the retail industry around this time of year. Indeed much of the humor in this piece comes from seeing how appalling desperate many people seem to get around Christmas. And unlike Christmas Carol, this piece is filled with adult language and is not a holiday show that I’d recommend bringing children to see.

 

Although Mr. Sedaris himself has written many snarky satiric plays with his sister Amy (collectively under the pen name “the Talent Family"), he actually never intended for Santaland to be a play. That said, this stage adaptation by Joe Mantello (he directed The Last Ship this past summer here in Chicago) is pretty much almost word-for-word from the actual story. I did a quick re-read of it to be sure. Anyone who’s read the story will be hearted to know it’s more or less the same.

 

Mitchell Fain stars in Santaland Diaries

 

The cast here consists of just one man, Mitchell Fain, which means what we’re basically watching is a roughly 120 minute long monologue with lots of Fain’s own personal gay/Jewish improvisational humor thrown in to shake things up. It helps that Mr. Fain is not only a gifted comedian with his own sense of humorous observations, but that he looks and acts like an authentic person. This play just wouldn’t work if a soap opera actor were doing the role.

 

A majority of the humor in Mr. Sedaris’s writing comes from describing his own life experiences as a man who is on the margins of society and always one step away from sheer humiliation in awkward situations. In this stage version Mr. Fain is definitely marginal, but he feels so in control and comes across as being so relaxed on stage that we’re missing that teetering feeling of utter embarrassment from him. Even when Mr. Fain dons the elf outfit and forces a cheerful smile upon revealing it to us we still never get that sense of humiliating shame from him, at least not in the same way we do when reading Mr. Sedaris story to ourselves. I like that Mr. Fain is having fun and making this role his own. I just feel like he could add some additional layers though.

 

Mitchell Fain is a terrific entertainer, but he’s not a terrific storyteller. The actor seems to be the most at ease when he’s either doing an impression of someone in the story or improvising on the spot with his own words (especially when he’s interacting with the audience). He’s far less comfortable and thus far less engaging when he actually has to move the story forward with the actual textual plotline.

 

Still, even in these moments Mr. Fain never gets dull, and as a whole the play itself never once gets boring. This is a credit to Mr. Sedaris’s narrative which is so chalk-full of honest, insightful, and delightfully witty reflections that it would be hard anyone in the audience to get detached.

 

And although Santaland is funny and at times very endearing there are some jokes on the night I attended that worked better than others. One gag about an encounter with a group of, how shall I say this…. mentally challenged individuals fell completely flat, so much so that Mr. Fain felt the need to repeat it even louder. While another small joking reference to the Holocaust was unnecessary.

 

I should point out that not having read the actual script it’s hard to know whether these moments were lines written for the adaptation or if they were Mr. Fain’s own casual improvisation. Mr. Fain’s great conversational-like comedic style makes it hard to tell in places what’s intentionally scripted and what’s not.

 

Nevertheless, Mr. Fain is smart enough to gauge the comfort level of his audience each night. He goes far with his jokes at times, but thankfully never too far once he senses a joke has hit the wall. Overall Mr. Fain’s intentions appear to be good natured throughout, and even the more raw jokes never come off as offensive.

 

Mitchell Fain stars in Santaland Diaries

 

Walking into the theatre, and for the first half hour or so all we have in the way of a set are a stool in front of a curtain. So I was worried that all we’d be seeing is a Jerry Seinfeld like stand-up routine revolving around the Santaland Diaries stories. While that still might be true, fortunately the curtain gets pulled back mid-way through the show to reveal to our delight scenic designer Joey Wade’s wonderful recreation of “Santaland”.

 

Turning Mr. Sedaris’s deadpan style of writing into a lively stage production is a challenge in and of itself, not only for Mr. Fain but for director Jeremy Wechsler. Luckily since this show has been playing annually for so long now, and because Mr. Fain has been doing the same role for a good majority of the show’s history, it feels as though this show has also become looser as a result. There’s a freedom here both in terms of directing and acting styles that comes out almost organically on stage. Nothing feels overly staged or over-thought by Mr. Wechsler and there’s a natural flow from one moment to the next in terms of pacing that is spot-on for this piece.

 

Bottom Line: The Santaland Diaries is recommended. Santaland is not only a humorous, sincere, and engrossing story, but a perfect holiday treat that has become a tradition on its own for many people. Now playing for its 11th sold-out year this show is also a great money-maker for Theatre Wit. Be forewarned though that this show is so popular that it has a tendency to sell out on most weekends. I highly advise calling ahead to book your tickets well in advance of the show. The Saturday performance I attended was almost completely full.

 

On a final unrelated note, Theatre Wit could really use a second bartender on weekends to help out. The one bartender working the night I attended was so overwhelmed with drink orders from a long line of patrons that the show started almost 15 minutes late. Drinking is allowed, if not encouraged, at this production.

 

The Santaland Diaries – Theatre Wit

Running Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes, there is no intermission

Runs through: December 28, 2014

Location: Theatre Wit - 1229 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60657

The theatre is located near the intersections of N Racine Ave and W Belmont Ave in the Lakeview district of Chicago. It is an easy 6 minute walk west from the CTA Belmont Station and can also be accessed by the # 77 Belmont Ave bus. Parking is available nearby, but space is limited. Use googlempas for directions. 

Curtain TimesThursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 3 pm 

Tickets and Reservations: $24 - $36. Tickets are available at www.theaterwit.org, in person at the Theater Wit Box Office, or by calling (773) 975-8150

 

Adapted by Joe Mantello, Based on the story by David Sedaris, Directed by Jeremy Wechsler, Scenic Design by Joey Wade, Lighting Design by Mike Durst, Costume Design by Mara Blumenfeld, Sound Design by Joseph Fosco, Stage Management by Katie Klemme

Cast: Mitchell Fain

Photo Credits: Johnny Knight

 

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