"Everyone looks retarded when you set your mind to it," exclaims Crumpet, a 45-year-old elf working the display window overlooking the throng of holiday shoppers at Macy's Santaland in New York City. It's just one of a surplus of sardonic observations made by the elf, played by a spry and mordant Michael McKeever in The Santaland Diaries at the Adrienne Arsht Center. The play, based on the collection of essays of the same name by kick-ass humorist David Sedaris, is the perfect antidote to the saccharine-filled holiday-themed cheeriness that bombards our everyday existence in movies, television, plays, parks, and, most of all, the cathedral of mawkish merriment — the shopping mall.
Through vignettes and anecdotes, the hilarious 80-minute, one-act play seeks to show the ruination of Christmas through the petty, trivial, and tired ritual of parents forcing their howling children to sit on the lap of some fat guy in a red suit, all told through the eyes of an aging man in green tights and candy-cane socks. But know that this production is more Bad Santa than How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It's clearly for parents only, unless you're cool with your kids hearing an elf say fuck and discovering that Santa is really just a bunch of minimum-wage dudes who work in shifts.
Mocking and deriding the whole enterprise with tongue pressed firmly in cheek, Santaland Diaries is dipped in sarcasm and filled with the biting social commentary and good-natured humor that has made Sedaris a huge hit.
Taken from excerpts of Sedaris's collection of essays, which the writer began reading for NPR radio in December 1992, the play recounts his true-life experiences as an elf at Macy's Santaland. Sedaris became an instant success, eventually publishing his work and vaulting to the top of best-seller lists with other books such as Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
On a dare, Sedaris (McKeever) answers an ad in the paper and applies for a job as a Santaland elf. But the reality of the situation soon hits him with the realization he's a middle-aged guy competing for a job that will have him wearing bells and a funny hat and working long, miserable hours.
"I'm a 45-year-old man applying for a job as an elf," he laments. "And worse than applying is the possibility of not even getting hired."
Sedaris, of course, lands the job as a full-time elf and even adopts the name Crumpet (all elves are required to give themselves elfish names, as mandated in "The Elfin Guide," received during elf training).
Within the first five minutes of working his new job, a grown man tells him he "looks fucking stupid." But because he's paid to be merry and cheerful no matter what, Crumpet grits his teeth, forces a smile, and replies, "Thank you!"
And thus begins the whirling and enchanted odyssey that is working the Santaland shift as a Christmas prop for throngs of assholes and their bratty kids for an entire holiday season. "Twenty-two thousand people came to see Santa today, and not all of them are well-behaved," the elf says.
Crumpet merrily recounts some of the crazier moments on the job — such as when a man peed on Santa's lap — the foibles of the various Santas he works with ("Santa Doug spits when he talks to the kids!"), and the challenge of learning the exotic and downright weird names parents give their kids ("One kid was named Fontage; another was named Great.")
Crumpet also reveals the subtle creeping racism that some parents exhibit whenever a Santa of color is working. And he eventually loses his shit when shoppers get more insane as the Christmas shopping days count down to zero.
Yet Santaland Diaries isn't without its soft side. There's a sprinkling of the true meaning of Christmas that doesn't completely reveal itself until the final moments of the play. But it's there, reminding us that even though the majority of us act like monsters during this time of year, we all know what the season is really about. The entire production is cynicism with a heart. And the fact that someone purposely put himself through such an ordeal makes a fascinating tale with uproarious results.
The multitalented McKeever breezes across the stage with an athletic and playful dexterity that lets audience members know they're in on the joke. And his comedic timing really brings Sedaris's stinging commentary to life.
The stage design by Stuart Meltzer, who also directs, looks like a Christmas bomb went off. Ostensibly a mockup of Santaland at Macy's, there is an amalgam of fake gifts, fake snow, fake candy-cane pillars, and colored lights surrounding Santa's throne, made of fake gold.
From the blinking holiday lights accompanied by a "Hallelujah" chorus as McKeever transforms from tie-wearing guy to Crumpet the elf, to the several oversize martinis he swigs throughout the play, nothing is understated. Meltzer and McKeever make the most of the small stage to full comedic effect.