First the zany title piece in a highly amusing collection of satirical stories, and later a gut-busting one-man show (adapted for the stage in 1996 by N.C. School of the Arts graduate and Tony-winning actor Joe Mantello), The SantaLand Diaries by Raleigh native David Sedaris gleefully exposes the dark side of Christmas commercialism. The current Firefly Productions, Inc. national tour of this wickedly funny R-rated one-act comedy is superbly staged by director Steven Maler, with actor Craig Bentley impishly impersonating Sedaris and his trash-talking elfin alter ego Crumpet. The SantaLand Diaries should be a big, big hit for Off-Broadway Series South.
In a season filled with saccharine theatrical remembrances of Christmases past, The SantaLand Diaries provides a sardonic antidote. Written with an acid pen by David Sedaris, a popular National Public Radio commentator and the best-selling author of Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, The SantaLand Diaries recalls one of the lowest and most mortifying moments in Sedaris' life, a not-so-long-ago time when financial exigencies forced him to dress up like a cartoon character and address the public in bright, cheerful sentences that all seemed to end in exclamation points!
In the present production of The SantaLand Diaries, Craig Bentley is a scream as young out-of-work actor David Sedaris, a real wisenheimer who says he was $20 away from walking dogs for his New York neighbors when he took a job as an elf in the famous in SantaLand section of Macy's department store, where children of all ages are photographed with Santa.
Whether attired in casual clothes, or dressed in an elaborate elf costume that must be seen to be believed, a buoyant Craig Bentley kept Tuesday's opening-night audience in stitches with his caustic running commentary on auditioning to be an elf, Macy's rigorous training program for Santa's assistants, the difficulties of working with lecherous and drunken Santas, and his comical confrontations with all manner of pathetic and/or obnoxious Macy's customers and their children.
The inevitable comparisons to Woodpecker Productions' 2000 and 2001 shoe-string productions of The SantaLand Diaries, staged at Theatre in the Park and starring New York actor/director Eric Woodall, are favorable. Woodall's crackerjack chain-smoking characterization of David/Crumpet was definitely darker and more sardonic. Firefly Productions star Craig Bentley takes a little lighter approach, involves the audience in several hilarious segments, and leavens his sarcasm with funny faces; and director Steven Maler incorporates more audio and sound effects (by sound designer J. Hagenbuckle) into this upscale production with colorful detailed SantaLand sets by scenic designer Kristie Thompson, artful illumination by lighting designer John R. Malinowski, and superlatively detailed outfits by costume designer Thomas Soderberg.
To provide too much more description would be to rob the play's punch lines of their punch. Go see The SantaLand Diaries. You'll be glad you did.
Off-Broadway Series South presents The SantaLand Diaries Thursday-Friday, Dec. 19-20, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 21, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 22, at 2 and 7 p.m. in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, NC. $21-$38. 919/834-4000 or 919/231-4575 (group discounts). http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2002-2003/offbroadway.html#santaland [inactive 4/04] or http://www.santalanddiaries.com/ (deactivated 5/03).