If the sudden onslaught of winter and the Yuletide has given you a case of the “blahs” or, worse, the “Bah! Humbugs,” I can prescribe no better cure than Theatre in the Park's presentation of a work by David Sedaris, The Santaland Diaries. Adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello, Sedaris' autobiographical sketch of a 33-year-old man playing a Christmas elf at Macy's is absolutely hilarious, exceedingly fleet at around 90 minutes, and guaranteed to cure what ails you.
Diaries has been a staple at Theatre in the Park for a number of years now, and why not? It is a one-man show that gives the man playing Crumpet the elf a tremendous vehicle and a sure-fire way to make yourself known, Triangle-wide, as a crackerjack comedic actor. Returning as Crumpet is Jesse R. Gephart, who was recently seen on TIP's boards in True West, and who received a Raleigh Little Theatre Cantey Award last season for his role as Tom in The Glass Menagerie.
Diaries is set in the Herald Square location of Macy's in downtown New York, on the eighth floor(!). We meet Crumpet before he gets his name, as a nameless out-of-work actor – is there any other kind? – who is reduced to interviewing for a job as a Christmas elf by a combination of circumstances that has rendered him penniless. Sedaris has written the role, and Gephart plays it, a touch fey, which works like gangbusters once we get to see Crumpet in his full regalia. In a costume designed by Denise Schumaker, Crumpet wears striped socks, green elf booties, a red tunic, and a green skirt, which, if he lifts it high enough, has the word “Crumpet” sewn inside. The script calls for Gephart to dress just behind the curtain, describing to us what he dons as it happens, so that he can give us the full effect once back on stage. The combination is worthy of the build-up. Only large amounts of green could convince a grown man to dress like that.
Since it takes about three interviews, two callbacks, and two full days of training sessions to become a Macy's elf, we are well into the show before we actually get to see Santaland. After about twenty minutes, Crumpet unveils this wonderland, and it is truly a showstopper. On a set designed by TIP's Thomas Mauney, nestled among many decorated Christmas trees are colored lights, snow, magical garlands, many wrapped packages, and, of course, a regal throne, set dead center, on which Santa himself sits. Crumpet describes several different Santas he gets to work with, like the one he calls the Walrus: a man from Florida who has a full walrus mustache and who considers himself a killer with the ladies. Crumpet finds this aspect of the man's character somewhat nauseating, as watching the man hit on a married woman with three children is pathetic.
We also learn a lot about the many elves that Crumpet gets to work with. There are the returning elves, those who have actually done this before, and have actually returned for more humiliation. And there are the actor elves, who make Crumpet green with envy when they talk about actually being on set with the cast of One Life to Live. And finally, there's Snowball, a little fairy of an elf who flirts with all the other elves. Gephart made it all hilarious. I have not laughed so hard in years! In fact, one of the funniest bits was totally off-the-cuff, when a young lass got up from the audience and headed backstage right in the middle of the act. Correctly assessing that she needed the loo, he called her on it, led her across the stage and out the door, and then vamped for several minutes until the poor child returned, mortified, to her seat. I swear if the chairs had not had arms I would have literally been rolling in the aisles.
Crumpet is an absolute stitch; he has a no-holds-barred aspect to him that makes his assessment of the typical New Yorker Macy's customer, or the typical parent of small children who don't want to be there, or the typical foreigner who isn't really sure just exactly what is going on, all victims of Crumpet's rapier wit. It's all in good fun, and fun we truly had, because Gephart got us and kept us right with him, all night long.
The Santaland Diaries is written to amuse, and no one knows this better than Gephart. Sedaris ladles on the humor, and Gephart takes it all and gives it a boost. I defy you to sit through The Santaland Diaries with a straight face. Can't be done. If you need a pick-me-up to get you through the season, this is without a doubt your very best bet. One word of warning, though: This show is definitely R rated, so 'twould be best to leave the wee ones with grandma.
The Santaland Diaries continues through Sunday, December 18. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.