Panache Theatrical Productions continues one of Wilmington’s most beloved holiday traditions with the annual production of David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries.” This year the one-man show has landed at Big Dawg’s Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street, with Randy Davis accepting the terrifying challenge of keeping the audience entertained mostly by himself for the evening. As he notes in his actor’s bio, this is not a show where if he drops a line or misses a cue, there is another cast member on stage who can improvise and cover the mistake. It is a challenge and terror like none other for an actor to get through opening night of “Santaland.” But once the curtain comes down (metaphorically, there is no curtain at the Playhouse), he is part of a select fraternity ever after.
Sedaris grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is possibly one of the most successful contemporary writers from North Carolina. His big break came when the essay for “Santaland Diaries” was read on NPR in 1992. Joe Mantello (University of North Carolina School of the Arts alumni) adapted the show for the stage, and Timothy Olyphant originated the role in 1996 at The Atlantic Theatre Company.
“Santaland Diaries” details the first winter Sedaris lived in Manhattan (he had to borrow money from his mother to move there). In spite of having a college education and over a decade of work experience, the only job he was able to secure was working as an elf named Crumpet in Macy’s Santaland.
The stage adaptation of Sedaris’ essay is one man recounting the events, peppered with occasional breaks and commentaries from a group of Not Ready for Christmas Carolers—Grace Carlyle Berry, Kaleb Bradley and Dianne March. Part of what makes “Santaland Diaries” interesting is the opportunity to see the way different actors portray the role. Some variation on the elf being gay and bitchy ran for many years until Jamey Stone (director of the 2019 production) abandoned any pretense that Crumpet was gay a few years ago.
Jason Hatfield’s Crumpet was so filled with anger and rage, it almost pushed me out of the theatre.
Justin Smith, at close to 7 feet tall, had a lock on physical comedy: with the visual image, pretty much anything he said was be funny.
Adam Poole, who was too young and handsome to play Crumpet, gave us the elf as the shaggy dog story: It was almost like Holden Caulfield was giving an excuse for not showing up to class.
Davis has gone with an understated approach to Crumpet. It’s like running into a friend while walking downtown and catching up with each other’s lives. In a very calm, quiet voice, Davis takes us through the increasingly bewildering story of him sitting in a coffee shop, reading the want ads, looking for a job, applying to be an elf at Macy’s Santaland and then training for the job. Davis doesn’t really build up a lot of the jokes or oversell the persona of Crumpet. He gives us a guy we probably know, and lets that guy tell us a story that is just believable enough.
We know him well enough that it’s crazy but not impossible. For many of the previous performers, the humor, sarcasm and anger have been the big pieces of the show. For Davis the entire show is a prelude to the final story he recounts: An unknown Santa appears on Christmas Eve and truly teaches the message of Christmas to families visiting Santaland and to Crumpet himself. Maybe it is because Davis is a father of two in real life, so when he contemplates whether he really shows his child he loves them each day, he draws on something deeper than those of us without children. Perhaps this is the message that truly resonates with Davis on a deeper level than the rest of the text. Not only does he make us laugh in the beginning, he brings tears to our eyes by the end.
Ever spent time talking with someone who has just had a profound spiritual experience they are processing? It tends not to be a loud or over-the-top but more of a quiet, almost matter-of-fact and very thoughtful recitation of events leading to a moment of realization. That’s what Davis’ Crumpet seems to be doing. It’s the most spiritual “Santaland Diaries” brought to stage yet.
I love 2019’s Not Ready for Christmas carolers; they are probably one of my favorite groups ever. Their interactions with Davis are more like commentary than incidental music. Two songs have become staples of the carolers: “Here Comes Satan Claus” and “Deck the Halls.” The latter is used for the big reveal of Crumpet in his elf costume, and this year’s air-guitar, rock-out version is a nice variation on the theme. But “Mambo Santa Mambo” is my favorite of the evening. For all that Crumpet is threading his way through these absurd experiences, the carolers are enjoying every minute they get to torment him. It’s kind of like having an irritating little sister and two of her friends who just won’t go away.
The idea of annual holiday show to attend is not a new one. “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol” (see page 28) are two with long and varied production histories. For me, “Santaland Diaries” is an important part of the winter season. At times, it has given me an outlet for anger. Other years, it has given me the release of laughter I needed in the midst of tension. There have been years of bigger production values: more elaborate sets, from Sedaris’ apartment to the breakroom at Macy’s to Santaland. This year the Playhouse has been transformed into a three-quarter thrust with a fabulous throne chair in the center. Until the throne is revealed, it almost seems to taunt Davis: He can’t decide if he is drawn to it or if he is ignoring it.
I desperately wanted him to sit down on the covered chair or on the edge of one of the audience platforms, sort of like a standup comedian, he’s covering real estate on the stage, talking to the audience. His tone of voice and body language are far calmer than any standup comedian.
Davis has a wonderful way of bringing the secondary characters that Crumpet talks about to life. They are subtle, but real and distinct. Combined with the whole, this year’s production of “Santaland Diaries” brought me solace.
Thank you, Randy, for showing me yet another side of Crumpet.