The Barter Blog

The Santaland Diaries Reveal Untold Secrets

November 30, 2018

Review by Bonny Gable

November 30, 2018

Anyone familiar with David Sedaris’s writing knows he pens a quirky brand of humor with unvarnished truth at its core. In Barter Theatre’s production of his The Santaland Diaries, adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello, his observations on how humans carry out their Christmas traditions are served up in distinctive Sedaris style. With biting satire and “truth stranger than fiction” fashion he shares his all too real experience working as a department store elf in Macy’s Santaland.

Struggling to survive as he chases his career dream in New York City, David reluctantly joins the throng of desperate adults embracing Elfdom just to make ends meet. A man will do most anything in order to eat, and after all it’s just for one season. How bad can it be? He passes his interviews, endures job training, dubbed the elfin name “Crumpet” and then – with all the stamina and patience he can muster – braves the harrowing job itself. Along the way he collects a plethora of stories: of fellow elves – some flakey, some flirty; “veteran” elves who speak in exclamation points; kids of ALL ages who come seeking Santa for reasons sublime and ridiculous; and Santas of many stripes and colors who not only keep elves on their toes but also challenge traditionalists in a game of political correctness.

This one-man show features Nicholas Piper as Crumpet the Elf, and a better casting selection could not have been made. Piper has a free and easy rapport with the audience as he spins David’s tales of hilarity and frustration. He effortlessly fluctuates from friendly to sarcastic to just a little insane when Crumpet embarks on fantasies and takes us along for the ride. We are carried from heights of laughter at the outrageous behavior that possesses people at Christmastime, to somber moments of reflection on the ludicrousness when people try too hard and miss the point altogether. Through his deft skills and charm Piper crafts a unique experience of human communion through divine comedy.

Director Tricia Matthews has done a fine job unleashing the play’s devilish charm while maintaining, even highlighting the poignancy of its lessons. In a work such as this it is a tricky venture to strike a perfect balance when cynicism and angst are paired with awe and compassion. Matthews has met the challenge handsomely.

Helen Stratakes’s creative set design illustrates that these stories have a magic all their own. From the dreary corporate offices we see at the top of the show springs the glittering splendor of Santa’s House, unfolding with a touch of a finger. In each setting there are touches of whimsy that strike a comical chord. Tony Angelini’s musical underscoring and Camille Davis’s lighting make elfin mischief, often frolicking together to punctuate Crumpet’s lavish storytelling. Costume design by Alice Sullivan has produced Crumpet’s impish green velvet suit, complete with pointy hat and spats, which enhances the amusing animation of his antics.

The distinctive Sedaris style is one that is definitely for adults only, but what fun it is to have an overgrown elf point out some truths about the holiday season that we’d rather not admit. However he also shares a truth from the wisest Santa of them all: “The most important thing is to love other people as much as they love you.”

The Santaland Diaries runs at Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA through December 30. For tickets and information contact 276-628-3991 or www.bartertheatre.com

Bonny Gable is a freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia.