Last year Panache Theatrical Productions revived the annual Wilmington tradition of producing “The Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris, adapted for the stage by multi-Tony Award nominee and winner Joe Mantello. The one-man show is a tour through the first winter Sedaris lived in New York, where he also found employment as an elf in Macy’s Santaland. Panache moved the show to Red Barn Studio Theatre on Third Street last year, where it has returned for another season.
To be clear: Sedaris is not actually in Wilmington preforming the show. He wrote the essay which aired on NPR in 1992. Anyone familiar with Sedaris’ writing style knows there is a very cynical, sardonic edge to his voice that comes through clearly in this show as well. For example, notice Sedaris doesn’t choose an elf name like “Snowball” or “Gingersnap.” It’s “Crumpet.”
The plot arc follows Crumpet’s adventures in holiday retail, wherein he sees the best and worst of humanity. Part of what makes the show fascinating year after year is the opportunity to see the way different performers approach the same material. Annually, a different actor takes on Sedaris’ famed elf, Crumpet, to explore different aspects and themes within the script. Throughout the years we have seen Crumpet motivated by anger and pain, Crumpet of quiet desperation, Crumpet’s story as a possible shaggy dog, Crumpet as a long lost friend getting high and catching up with crazy stories, and the humor of Crumpet as an unbelievably tall man in an elf sui—to name just a few.
This year Jamey Stone takes on the role, which comes across more as a northern, disaffected mid-40s working guy who can’t believe his life has sunk so low that he has to get a job as an elf. It is shocking his personal sense of entitlement has gone so wrong. His anger gets funneled into other characters in the story with an almost Louis Black-like attitude of, “How can you be so dumb?” Like his disbelief when Gingersnap asks if she can wear her elf costume home. Stone pulls back from the expected inflation of Black’s comedy repertoire and instead gives audiences more of a modern-day Archie Bunker.
“Things were not supposed to go this way…”
“I am supposed to have a better job than this…”
“I am supposed to have more options than this…”
“Where did the world go so wrong?”
It is like his inner being is screaming, “I’m trying here! Isn’t anyone noticing?” It seems like a cry that resonates with many people right now. It is a departure from Sedaris’ life of a young, starving, gay writer who expected his life to be a series of disasters but has a sarcastic response to himself and everyone else as a defense mechanism. That is part of what makes the show interesting: It changes and evolves with performance and interpretation.
“Santaland” is set in the break room of Macy’s department store. Filtering into the scene are four additional caroling Santaland elves: Devin DiMattia, Jennifer Marshall Roden, Marlon Ramos, and Will Roden. Here, an additional subplot is being acted out under Crumpet’s nose and he is clearly oblivious to it. Ramos begins the evening with sharpening a knife on his boot to set up his “bad boy” persona. DeMattia rifles through other employee’s jacket pockets to steal money while disarming others with a smile and offer of friendship. Meanwhile, the Rodens manage to plot an entire relationship over the course of an evening: initial meeting, flirtation, young love, first fight, reconciliation. Together they sing beautifully. From a truly lovely rendition of “Jingle Bells” (complete with an oft-forgot second verse) to a Phil Collins tribute, they are a delightful counterpoint to Stone’s distress. The four-part harmony with Ramos’ surprising bass is really wonderful.
Far and away, though, my favorite song of the evening was “Feliz Navidad” complete with Will Roden on ukulele, Jennifer Roden dancing with maracas in a fit of near ecstasy and, somehow, Ramos managing to deliver the most deadpan cries of joy I have seen in years.
“How many times have we seen this show?” my date asked as we walked into the theatre. “It’s kind of like the Alastair Sim’s [Scrooge in] ‘A Christmas Carol’; it’s part of our holiday tradition.”
“And the ‘Muppet Christmas Carol,’” I added.
We started tallying up how many renditions of Crumpet we have enjoyed over the years. I think the story and multiple interpretations serve to remind us there are many ways of approaching not just the holidays but this thing called life. On the one hand, we are all moving through the same streets to experience the same weather, but our internal landscapes are vastly different. Learning, as Crumpet does, a little empathy, humility and to value others around us is something that doesn’t happen once but rather each day when we wake up.
I know Stone’s Crumpet, and I also know I have failed repeatedly to have empathy for his plight. It’s not a story as obvious and specific as “A Christmas Carol,” but if folks pay attention to the script, there are numerous moments and opportunities for recognition and transformation Sedaris has sprinkled throughout. Like Crumpet we have but to notice them to be changed.