We're All Crumpet Now: Kickshaw Theatre's production of David Sedaris' "The Santaland Diaries"
Despite the clichéd, eye-roll-inducing notion of creative work that makes you laugh and makes you cry, David Sedaris’ essays are nearly universally adored because they regularly, miraculously achieve just that.
This has become particularly true in recent years as Sedaris has explored, with bracing candor, the painful aftermath of a sister’s suicide and grappled with his complicated relationship with his aging, politically conservative father.
Yes, Sedaris and his craft have both come a long way since his hilarious, breakout 1992 radio essay “The Santaland Diaries” -- chronicling Sedaris’ work experience as a Macy’s elf in New York City during the holidays -- premiered on NPR’s Morning Edition. It’s since become a kind of subversive holiday classic, up to and including a one-man stage adaptation by Joe Mantello that’s now being produced (in Ypsilanti) by Kickshaw Theatre.
In The Santaland Diaries stage production, Sedaris (Yianni Papadimos) tells the story of being an aspiring young actor in New York, with big dreams of getting work on his favorite soap opera, One Life to Live. After three weeks, when nothing even close to that pans out, he answers a quirky newspaper want ad for Macy’s elves. He goes through multiple job interviews; sits through an inevitably absurd elf-training class; gives himself the elf-name Crumpet; and then finally, he works at different stations -- with a broad array of Santas and fellow elves -- within a department store’s seasonal, snow-globe world.
I’ve seen a few productions of Santaland Diaries now, and it’s always interesting to observe how different actors, of varying physical builds and backgrounds, re-shape Crumpet a bit in their own image. Papadimos, with his dark beard and burly build, looks all the more absurd in his green velvet jumper, candy-cane tights, and a jester-like red hat. And when Crumpet’s frustration threatens to reach its boiling point, or he’s particularly sharp-tongued, there’s a hint of real menace behind the words.
On the flip-side, though, Papadimo’s Billie Holiday moment -- during which a Macy’s Santa suddenly pressures Crumpet to sing “Away in a Manger” for a family -- felt oddly cursory on opening night, making it a drive-by instead of a highlight.
Lynn Lammers’ directs Kickshaw’s hour-long production, which uses, as a means to signal a transition between scenes, Crumpet’s turning of a literal diary page (with an aural assist from sound designer Will Myers and lighting by Rita Girardi). And indeed, the show has the feel of a collection of snapshots.
But at this point, I must confess, the pics are starting to resemble sun-faded Polaroids. Even as I began writing this review, I thought, “How many people even remember ‘One Life To Live’ (which signed off the air in 2012)?” And though Sedaris’ dry, world-weary perspectives once felt like a bit of irreverent, naughty fun around the holidays, they now feel downright mainstream.
I mean, in this “fake news” age, when the last of the credible news sources are all on life support, scrambling to survive, and we’re all stridently told -- on a daily basis -- that up is down … well … aren’t we all Crumpet now?
That said, there are far worse ways to take a break from all the usual holiday craziness than to sit back and enjoy the stalwart pleasures that Santaland Diaries still has to offer. Yes, many of us are already seeing the world daily through Crumpet’s jaundiced eyes, but let’s face it: He’s still sharper and funnier in his observations about it than we could ever hope to be.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.