The Santaland Diaries is an Antidote for Christmas Sentimentality

by Sam Pynes

TADA Theatre, Thursday, December 9, 2021, 7:30PM

The Santaland Diaries opened last night to a full audience in the intimate space at TADA Theatre. The show is a 90-min one-man dramatic interpretation of the essay of the same name.

David Sedaris is one of the premier essayists of our time. Part of what makes his style so appealing is his subtle commitment to crafting his sentences, while still keeping the illusion of spontaneity. His sardonic humor comes from the dry way that he presents the ridiculous things with which he comes into contact, without passing overt judgement on them, or belaboring the point. What ultimately sells him is that hidden beneath his pessimistic musings is a striving for joy, connection, and personal improvement in his work, while on the surface sardonically exposing the sad and ironic culture in which we live and lamenting our part in proliferating it.

This play is an adaptation of the early essay which launched Sedaris’ writing career after he delivered it on NPR in 1992, reminiscing about his stint as an elf at Macy’s in Manhattan in 1991. It was incorporated into his first published work, Barrel Fever (1994), and subsequently Holidays on Ice (1997). Adapted for the stage in 1996, The Santaland Diaries has since been a common staple of the alternative Christmas repertoire.

The show begins with a brick wall hung with stockings, as over a fireplace. Bob Rook gave a heartfelt thanks to the audience for their loyalty to local theatre following the pandemic shutdowns that have permanently closed 20% of American theaters.

Dustin Witte is well cast for the role, even coincidentally looking and sounding a bit like Sedaris himself. More importantly, Witte delivers the script with clear annunciation and vibrant facial expressions punctuated by a wonderfully sarcastic frown.

Witte, as David, starts by recounting how he came to work at Macy’s, and eventually the set opens to reveal Santa’s throne in the middle of “Santaland” as he begins his job as Crumpet the Elf. It was easy to imagine the world that Witte paints with words, and he was consistent in his use of the imaginative locations on stage.

I do think a little more variety in tone, rhythm, and volume would have been valuable: Witte conveyed mostly generalized outrage and chagrin, with a shouting cadence that caused him to begin losing his voice almost immediately, which granted, added some to the effect of his disgruntled character. Given his excellent diction and the intimate space, I think he could have expressed his energy just as effectively a bit quieter and saved his voice, and might also have made it easier to tonally polish other passages. To his credit, keeping an audience’s attention for 90 mins all by yourself is no mean feat, and Witte kept the crowd listening and laughing.

The show, as in the essay, conveys stories of outlandish behavior which seem soley cynical about human nature in general, but even in this sardonic look at the foibles of humanity there is still a small, soft, and gooey center of hope. Sedaris expanded his essay with a subtly hopeful ending for the published collections. This adaptation rewrites this turn a little more explicitly but otherwise presents a good part of the essay as written. While I like the subtlety of the essay, this small change makes sense for the show and provides some extra clarity for the actor. Witte plays this moment with tender realization, which was very effective and made me wish he had gone part way there in earlier vignettes as well.

This play provides an antidote for Christmas sentimentality for those who are tired of it, especially anyone who has worked holiday retail. Spending ninety minutes with Crumpet will add some variety and laughs to your gingerbread preparations!

If you go: The Santaland Diaries runs December 9-19. Thur-Sat, 7:30PM and Sun at 2PM. Tickets are $10.00. Reservations are encouraged by going online at TADA has continued the practice of requiring the showing of vaccination cards in an effort to keep their patrons safe, in addition to observing the county mandate for face coverings in-doors. 

Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless. Current Managing Editor of Appearing Locally.

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