THEATER | Frank Theatre’s “The SantaLand Diaries”: Bittersweet without Sedaris

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The holiday season has the power to bring out the best and worst in people—just walk down Nicollet Mall before the Holidazzle parade and you’ll see it, you’ll feel it. Every year the holidays bring the same, for better or worse. And for what seems like its millionth year of production, Macy’s is putting on its “A Day in the Life of an Elf” animated tale. Those looking for a little more spice than sugar this month might find solace in Frank Theatre’s production of The SantaLand Diaries.

David Sedaris’s short story “SantaLand Diaries” appears in his collections Holidays on Ice and Barrel Fever, and recounts the author’s experience working as a Macy’s elf during the Christmas season. Then 33 years old and still waiting to make it big, Sedaris finds himself in the lowest of the lows as Crumpet the Elf in the commercial underbelly of the holiday season (lucky for him, he’s now reaping the benefits of it). In 1996, Joe Mantello adapted the story for the stage, and for the second year Frank Theatre brings the story to MInneapolis audiences in efforts to start its own cranky tradition.

For the first quarter of the play, Joe Leary as Crumpet sits on his barstool in his blue-collared shirt (really) and high-watered chinos in front of a black backdrop. I was afraid this was going to be the extent of costumes and set design (are there costume changes in a one-act, one-man play?) As it so happened, Leary forgets about a changing room all together and drops trow center stage, stripping down to his skivvies in order to transform into his elfin costume. It was uncomfortable. My playdate leaned over and whispered to me: “This makes me feel weird.” I laughed harder at that than at any other line in the play.

Sedaris is known for his dry wit, caustic observations on life (and people), and monotone voice that adds volumes to his stories and humor when read out loud. The man tours the nation just to read from a podium in respectably sized theaters that fill to capacity—virtually unheard of for many, many writers. With that said, it’s difficult to experience Sedaris’s work being performed by someone who’s, well, not David Sedaris. This is not a jab at Leary, who holds his own on stage as Crumpet and the many other personas portrayed, albeit a bit too blithely for someone whose role it is to exude disdain. What Leary does is act, whereas Sedaris simply tells. (After writing that sentence, I feel kinda bashful, what do I expect out of a play??) There’s something so human and relatable to Sedaris’s delivery that it’s hard to compete with him—he is his own entire package.

The SantaLand Diaries is funny, there’s no doubt about that. It’s hard to botch true humor. But as I was leaving the Assembly Theater at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis, I felt the urgency to go home and read my copy of the story and listen to Sedaris’s telling of it on YouTube in order to reclaim it in my mind. So, in this match between thespian and raconteur, the raconteur wins.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

This production can be seen using discount vouchers from the Daily Planet’s Theater All Year program—six vouchers for just $99.

(The Theater All Year program is run independently of the Daily Planet’s editorial coverage, and participation in the program does not affect the likelihood or content of any Daily Planet previews or reviews.)


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