The Santaland Diaries 2015

santaland-diaries
The Santaland Diaries 2015

Adapted by Joe Mantello

Based on David Sedaris’ essay

Directed by Jeremy Wechsler

Produced by Theater Wit

“It’s not about the child or Santa or Christmas or anything,

but the parents’ idea of a world they can not make work for them.”

A Comedy For Holiday Dissenters

Have you heard it yet? Flipping through your radio, walking through the mall, or waiting in line for your extra caramel and whipped cream caramel macchiato – have you heard it yet? Chances are you have. Christmas music: it spreads faster and with greater annual certainty than the Rhinovirus. And if it didn’t send angelic shivers of delight down your back (the Christmas music, that is) but rather ran your blood cold with cheerless impending dread – you’re not alone.

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The good news is that, while the common cold has no cure, Christmas dread does – and that cure is Theater Wit’s The Santaland Diaries. Back for its 12th annual staging, The Santaland Diaries is a one-man show that Joe Mantello adapted from David Sedaris’ early-90’s essay of the same name. Featuring superb comic acting by Mitchell Fain and a healthy dose of wry observations on the Christmas spirit gone wild, The Santaland Diaries is just the thing to combat a saccharine indulgence of Christmas cheer and comfort you through the coming maelstrom of holiday sales and consumption.

Following closely Sedaris’ original essay in which he recounts his experience as a Macy’s Santaland elf, The Santaland Diaries is a first-person, theatrical account of said experience. The story has a simple set-up: a well-educated man (Mitchell Fain), desperate for a job, decides to apply to become a Santaland elf at Macy’s. The rest of the one-act unfolds mostly as a series of anecdotes – some pathetic, some outrageous – one mildly tender – all wryly humorous. From the outset, Fain dispels with the fourth wall of theatre and the illusion that he is Sedaris, and assumes the character of Sedaris (i.e. the elf named Crumpet) as himself, Mitchell Fain, addressing the audience (sometimes specific persons) directly for greater comedic effect. In short, The Santaland Diaries is basically a series of sober observations from within the eye of the Christmastime storm given in a theatrically stand-up manner.

the santaland diaries 2010

As The Santaland Diaries is essentially a comedic monologue without plot or character development, the success of this production depends upon the strength of Fain’s performance. And what a performance it is! Right from the beginning, Fain’s presence commands and captivates as he weaves his ludicrous anecdotes between improvised interactions with the audience, feeding off their reactions. And thanks to the direction of Wechsler, neither the momentum nor the humor ever slackens during the entire 90 minutes.

What really delighted me about Fain’s performance, though, was his subtlety. While Mantello does well to set up most of the bigger comedic moments of Sedaris’ story, Fain, while acting out these moments, introduces his own subtle touch – a facial expression, a look in the eyes, a small gesture, a vocal inflection or affectation. This is where I found the real comedy of the piece: in Fain’s unique, personal touch.

While The Santaland Diaries may not be for everyone (specifically, children – and, especially, children who still believe in Santa), its mature appeal reaches to anyone who is capable of laughing at the peculiar, lunatic cheer of the holiday season in a spirit not cynical but wryly honest. It’s by far the best-acted comedy with something important to say I’ve seen in Chicago.

Highly Recommended

August Lysy

Austin.Lysy@gmail.com

Reviewed on November 20th, 2015

Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $24 – $36. For tickets and information, call the Theater Wit box office at 773-975-8150, or visit TheaterWit.org. Performances times are generally Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm, plus additional Tuesday and Wednesday 7:30 pm showings the week before Christmas, thru December 20th. (Check TheaterWit.org for several exceptions to this schedule and more added performances due to popular demand.) Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.