The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, adapted by Joe Mantello. Directed by Tony Simotes.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Peter Davenport as Crumpet; photo: Kevin Sprague
Peter Davenport as David; photo: Kevin Sprague
"Can we force children onto Santa’s lap at knife-point?"
Comedy of the most personal nature has always been the hallmark of the writing, and the monologizing, of author David Sedaris. His tale of wintry woe, the year he came to New York City and took a survival job as a Santaland elf at Macy’s Department Store, has always been a favorite of readers and of NPR radio listeners. To have heard it once in his voice, to have read it and heard his distinctive voice within its printed narrative, makes it that much harder to envision it as a one-person play. The story is the stuff of good old-fashioned made-for-television, Hallmark Hall of Fame, movies. To have it dropped on the stage as a one-person play seems almost a sacrilege when that person isn’t Sedaris himself.
How wonderful, then, to have a production where the elements are first-class and the actor is able to transcend all that we know and anticipate. At Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts an actor named Peter Davenport has taken the challenge and brought the narrative something new: a personality all his own. Here is an actor who represents the author well. He plays Sedaris even better than Sedaris himself. When he casually mentions his sister Amy, an actress well known to many attendees I am certain, there is nothing wrong in that...we believe him to be speaking of his sister.
Davenport’s David is a likeable man who has clearly made it in his profession. He lives in an exquisite apartment in Manhattan with a fabulous view north and east to the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building (thank you set designer Patrick Brennan). He wears very expensive clothing and jewelry. He has a handy maid who knows when to bring in the smoking jacket, when to hand off the box containing articles from David’s Santaland past, when to provide the tuxedo. His home contains furniture that adapts to his every need as a storyteller. Here is a successful man, preparing for a holiday party, ready to tell his story one more time to an audience that has probably heard it a hundred times already.
Tell it Davenport does as he becomes the Christmas Elf named Crumpet right before our eyes. There is a perfect opportunity for a playwright to take the moment of transition and open the visual doors of theatricality to show us the environment, the many Santas, the other elves, and store employees, the lines of eager and less-than-eager visitors to the inner sanctum of the store’s special homage to Santa Claus. It is an opportunity not taken and the show remains a "use your imagination" sort of play with one man only to show and tell.
We are lucky in that this is a very talented actor who flings comedy shtick hither and yon, and who can also visit the doorway to pathos without making us blush or shudder. Crumpet may be the key. He is a vivid creation that Sedaris places before us. Crumpet is the character we get to know best, even though David is lurking there behind his elfen self. David may tell the ultimate lie about not being gay, but no one in his right mind would believe it by the time Christmas Eve rolls around in the story. His relationships with the other elves, with children, the Santas and even with store managers brings us to the conclusion that Crumpet is odd but David is queerer.
The richness in the language makes the play as successful as it is. Laughs, when they come, are not gentle but become guffaws. The solemnity of need that pervades the work is never far below the surface and when it bobs up for a moment through the thickening depths of cold water it is startling, forcing us to recall why David is playing this role, what it brings him and what it takes out of him.
Director Tony Simotes has done a brilliant job of making the circumstances surrounding the telling of the tale realistic and believable. His staging of key moments away from the center of the stage keeps us moving forward in our seats while our attention remains riveted on the actor playing the actor playing the elf - and everyone else. The physical presentation of the story gives the actor a wide range of possibilities, all of which he seems to have taken with his director’s permission, in ways to relate the important moments of Crumpet’s brief career.
Govane Lohbauer has given the varied roles of David and Crumpet her best attention and the two characters are each represented wonderfully in their costumes. Michael Pfeiffer’s sound design work is excellent here with just enough Christmas music to keep us pointed toward the jokes. Stephen Ball has lit the play with just enough modest variation to keep us both inside and outside the spaces David talks about.
Sedarisless Sedaris works Sedaeriously with Davenport in place. While it took me a while to laugh, once I started it was hard to stop. Even when the darkness descends over Crumpet the play’s humor maintains our spirits and we know the time is coming when it will all be over and David will regain his actor’s soul. It’s a moment worth waiting for, one with its own rewards. After all, as he tells us about two thirds of the way through "Santa is an acronym for Satan."
The Santaland Diaries plays at Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P Bernstein Theatre through December 30. The play is 75 minutes in a single act. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.