Macy’s in New York now allows kids to sit on the laps of its Santas by appointment only. But David Sedaris remembers the good old days, when kids were kids and men were — well, men and women were elves. With alternating red and green hose. And long green stocking caps.
Sedaris’ recollection of his days as a Macy’s elf, The SantaLand Diaries, has been a hit ever since he read his essay on NPR in 1992. Joe Montello’s stage version, delivered at Drafthouse Comedy Theater in full snark and snide by off-Broadway pro Cameron Folmar, does it justice. He goes through the litany of Yuletide horrors, Macy’s style — the absurd training program; his moronic elfin colleagues; the maniacal parents; and the good and bad Santas — the Santa who wants to tell kids about holistic medicine, the Santa who is so in character that he insists that he lives at the North Pole even when there are no kids around.
Like any good storyteller, Folmar can drop into the personality of the character he’s describing even before you are aware that he’s doing it. He is mocking the character, but he is not condescending in his portrayal.
Previous versions of The SantaLand Diaries that I’ve seen imply, though they do not say directly, that David is a young man. He has come to the large apple to realize his dream of writing for the soap opera “Days of our Lives,” but has not hit the big time, or even the small time, yet. In this he probably resembles you, especially if you elected to have a career in the arts — working as a secretary, or a day laborer, or a barista, and wondering if this is how you’ll spend the rest of your days.
The SantaLand Diaries
closes December 23, 2017
Details and tickets
In this version, though, David announces that he’s forty-three at the time of his elfhood, and has been in NYC for five years. The story of a young adult who takes an absurd job while waiting for his true path to unfold is touching and funny, especially if, as here, the storyteller actually achieved his dream in the fullness of time. The story of a 43-year-old in the same situation is a psychiatrist’s case book. (In fact, Sedaris was only 36 when he read his essay on NPR).
There are a few other updates — cell phones and iPads have been added to the cacophony which attends the huge throng of people waiting to see Santa (23,000 on Christmas Eve, Sedaris reports) — but there are other parts that could use a review. Sedaris’ account of his disgusting colleague Walrus, who propositioned waiting mothers in his elf costume, probably doesn’t have the comic impact it once did. Although Sedaris’ outrage is clear, modern audiences will wonder why Macy didn’t throw Walrus out on his tusks, immediately. In more mundane matters, if the digital age is upon us in this version, why are so many parents still struggling with massive photographic equipment?
Sedaris is, at bottom, a satirist, which means that lines designed for laughter are built by rage. This is not at the forefront of Folmar’s performance, but it’s not absent, either. In fact, it’s impossible to watch this show and not be a little chilled by a culture which commodifies happiness with such desperation, or by parents who shoehorn their children into their own expectations of what childhood should be like.
Drafthouse Comedy Theater is a pleasant venue on L Street NW, where you can purchase a beer or a soft drink (or, apparently, homemade vodka, whatever that is, from Texas) in the lobby and sip on it during the show. It has been a home for standup comedy, but the owners have announced their intention to stage comedies in there as well. Good for Drafthouse Comedy Theater! However, to make the place fit for the stage, the owners should consider lighting beyond what can be achieved with an on-off switch, and, most importantly, install risers for the second and third rows, so that patrons in those seats do not have to peer around the large reviewer who has snagged himself a seat in the front row.
The Santaland Diaries, adapted by Joe Montello from an essay by David Sedaris . Directed by Lynn Sharp Spears . Featuring Cameron Folmar . Voice-over by Joel Friedman . Produced by Drafthouse Comedy Theater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Reviewer’s Note: Director Lynn Sharp Spears performed and did backstage work in my play Dracula. A Love Story (she was great) during the 2014 Fringe Festival. This has not affected my review.