The Santaland Diaries, which opened last night at the Arsht Center, is the perfect antidote for the saccharin-filled Holiday themed cheeriness that bombards our every day existence in movies, television, plays, parks and, most of all, the cathedral of mawkish X-Mas merriment -- the shopping mall.
Based on the collection of essays of the same name by kick-ass humorist David Sedaris, The Santaland Diaries is a hilarious play about the ruination of Christmas through the petty, trivial, and tired ritual of parents forcing their howling children to sit on some fat guy in a red suit's lap and take a picture for the sake of documentation. All told through the eyes of a middle-aged man in green tights and candy cane socks.
Santaland Diaries is dipped in sarcasm and filled with the biting social commentary and good-natured humor that has made Sedaris a huge success, mocking and deriding the whole enterprise with tongue pressed firmly to cheek.
The entire play is taken from excerpts of Sedaris' hilarious Santaland Diaries. a collection of essays which the writer began reading for NPR radio in December of 1992. The collection, which recounts Sedaris' true-life experiences as an elf at Macy's Santland in New York City, became an instant success with listeners, moving him to publish his work and eventually vaulting him 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.
The brisk 80-minute one-act play stars Michael McKeever as Sedaris's elf. Based mainly on a dare, Sedaris answers an ad in the paper and applies for a job as a Santaland elf at Macy's. But the reality of the situation soon hits him with the sudden realization that he's a middle-aged man applying for a job that will have him wearing bells, 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 does, of course, land the job as a full-time elf, and even adapts the name Crumpet (all elves are required to give themselves elvish names as mandated in The Elfin Guide received during elf training).
Within the first five minutes of working his new job, he inevitably gets a grown man to walk up to him and tell him that he "looks fucking stupid." But, because he's paid to be merry and cheerful no matter what, Crumpet grits his teeth, forces a fake 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," Sedaris says.
Crumpet recounts some real-life shit that went down during his time as an elf. There was that one time a grown man peed on Santa's lap, there's the different "Santas" he had to work with ("Santa Doug spits when he talks to the kids!"), and the challenge of learning on the fly the exotic and downright weird-ass names parents give their kids ("One kid was named Fontage, another was named Great"). Sedaris also reveals the subtle creeping racism that some parents would bring to the table whenever there was a Santa of color working a specific shift.
The multi-talented McKeever breezed throughout the stage with an athletic and playful dexterity that let the audience know we were in on the joke. The entire experience, after all, was a sort of sociological experiment where, through the hilarious stories and anecdotes, Sedaris lets us all peek behind the curtain of what Retail Christmas has become. It's not a new idea, to be sure. But the fact that someone put themselves through such an ordeal on purpose is fascinating. And the results are uproarious.
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From his transformation from middle-aged guy in a tie to Crumpet the Elf, to the Christmas bomb stage design, the entirety of Santaland Diaries goes full on sardonic. But it isn't without it's soft Christmassy side. There's a sprinkling of the true meaning of Christmas in there. This doesn't really reveal itself until the final moments of the play, but it's there, reminding us all that even though the majority of us act like goddamn monsters during this time of year, we all know what the season is all about in the end. The entire production is cynism with a heart. And it's down right funny.
Look for our extended review in this week's issue
The Santaland Diaries, presented by Zoetic Stage, runs through December 23 at the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theatre (1300 Biscayne Blvd.). Tickets are $35. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.