Last weekend the 13th production of David Sedaris’ quippy holiday monologue, “The Santaland Diaries” came to life on a Wilmington stage. Annually, local audiences have been engaged by actors taking on the role of the disgruntled elf, Crumpet, who hems and haws over the atrocities that take place in Macy’s Santaland during the holiday season in New York City. The show is based on Sedaris’ own experience of getting the job upon moving to the city (with secret hopes of landing on one of his favorite TV shows, “One Life to Live,” to meet Victoria Buchanan).
Brought to North Front Theatre by Panache Theatrical Productions, and directed by Panache co-founder Holli Saperstein, “Santaland” was set to be staged with Robb Mann leading the helm. However, after falling ill during opening weekend, Mann stepped aside, and one of the elves of the show’s Not So Ready for Christmas Carolers, Jamey Stone, stepped into his pointy green shoes at the last minute. Stone was last year’s Crumpet, so familiarity with the script was there, not to mention he had been in rehearsals as one of the elf backup singers. Still, it’s a tall order to take; no matter if an actor knows the text backward and forward, he has to carry it all on his shoulders primarily for one full hour. Most importantly, he has to nail the nuance of pomposity Sedaris so perfectly garnishes with his wit, from self-deprecation to judgemental mocking.
Part of why Stone fits perfectly into the role of Crumpet comes from his experience as a standup comedian. He understands cadence and delivery when presenting humor to an audience. More so, he knows how to read and feed off an audience quite well.
The one in tow on Saturday night was very receptive to his posturing of elf life, from the onset of explaining the Elfen Guide—stating rules of where to smoke and drink on the job—to varied titles one can attain in Macy’s Santaland: entrance elf, water-cooler elf, bridge elf, train elf, maze elf, island elf, magic-window elf, usher elf, cash-register elf, exit elf. Stone’s deadpan delivery is a great match for the sardonic writing of Sedaris. He rarely allows his own reactions to lead an audience’s laughter; he knows the appropriate amount of pathos and ethos for each moment in the script.
He also wears the elf costume with enough disdain—grimace included—to carry the weight of a 40-year-old man in a green and red suit, with an extra long pointy hat, physically and emotionally showing us ridicule. Speaking of physical attributes, Stone maintains a rasp in his voice, which I’m pretty sure was a side effect of doing the hour-long monologue and singing throughout the show the night before, and without much rehearsal time for both. In fact, he is the very first Crumpet to sing in the show—ever. It is an effective addition, even if accidental, to show us Crumpet’s range of emotions.
Joined by Amy Carter and Roxann Hubbard, Stone’s falsetto balances the Not So Ready for Christmas Carolers’ most fantastic anti-holiday songs, like “Here Comes Satan Claus” (after all, Satan is an anagram of Santa) and “Santa Mambo.” Their homage to Phil Collins’ ‘80s hit “In the Air Tonight,” as well as Crumpet’s nod to singing “Away in a Manger” like Bob Dylan, hit high marks. Carter and Hubbard add their own caustic bite in celebrating a holiday revolving around capitalism, which pair with Stone’s own snide but endearing attitude.
The set design by Lindsay Payne is effective and simple. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring piece comes in a 20-25-foot ladder wrapped in green with a simple white star at the top. It’s massive and fanastic, and would be even more impactful if the red curtains, which act as Santa’s backdrop for pictures, weren’t covering the bottom of it.
Sedaris’ writing truly is a holiday gift I look forward to hearing on NPR annually, as he takes to the airwaves to read the 1992 essay. While I think his words are so relevant and offer a take most of us cynics can agree with about the commercialization and mania the holidays bring, it’s always different to watch theatre companies set it to motion. It’s tough for one actor to carry the weight of its words; though, I can’t say I’ve reviewed one where it hasn’t been successful. Over the years, the backup singers have added a punch of merriment and hilarity in various scenes. I personally would like to see it evolve even more. Since we’re talking about a show revolving around kids sitting on a jolly old man’s lap to recite their wishlists, I thought I’d put together a few wishes of my own (assuming they’re all OK when obtaining rights to the script)…
Live theatre is about bringing words to life. I’d like to see whichever theatre company continues it (two have carried it over the years, Cape Fear Theatre Arts LLC and now Panache) to consider casting a few more people or utilize more elves (Gingersnap and Snowball, maybe?) to actually act out more scenes, as Crumpet narrates them.
Writing is about showing readers what is happening, which Sedaris does brilliantly: He sets up the scene, in all of its detail, and then profers his opinion. Panache did a few scenes with Carter and Hubbard enacting them; I’d like it to go further. Theatre, too, is about showing audiences rather than telling them. Sedaris’ words are fantastic enough to have thespians act them out to heighten the experience and laughs.
And one more request for whomever does “Santaland” in the future: What’s it gonna take to cast a female Crumpet? Theatre is gender fluid, as Shakespeare has shown us many times over; I think it’s time to see a lady’s take on our favorite snarkstar.