If A Christmas Carol is eggnog, then The Santaland Diaries is pure grain alcohol. Humorist David Sedaris wrote the acid-tongued essay about his eye-opening, pre-fame stint as a Macy’s Christmas elf, publishing it in two collections and reading it on NPR’s “This America Life.” Director Joe Mantello adapted it into a one-man stage show in 1996. Now the vulgarity-tinged one-act has become something of a holiday staple, the perfect antidote to sugar plums and Santa’s nice list.
WaterTower Theatre regularly presented Santaland for a spell in the early 2000s, but we’ve been deprived of Crumpet the Elf since 2008. Now Garret Storms, an actor who’s probably more familiar to Fort Worth audiences, steps into the candy cane-striped tights for a straightforward yet still charming production directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi.
I’ve seen Santaland Diaries tricked out with elaborate set designs and extra actors, something theaters understandably feel they must incorporate to keep upping the ante year after year. But Ervi and Storms simply rely instead on Sedaris’ insightful and often wildly inappropriate observations, letting the words sink in when necessary and skipping nimbly past phrases when it heightens the comedic tension. Storms’ impersonations, which range from crass New Jersey meathead to Billie Holiday, are just as physical as they are vocal.
Ervi has also wisely chosen not to update the text with current pop culture references, another crutch often employed to help keep audiences interested. The only modern nod is dressing Storms as a deadpan hipster in the beginning—complete with oversized tortoise shell glasses—before he succumbs to the velvet tunic and felt elf ears designed by costumer Derek Whitener. A selection of Christmas tunes, both jolly and jeering, smoothes the transitions between short, sharp scenes.
As cynical and unprintable as much of the dialogue is, it also surprises with well-timed hints of vulnerability and seasonal warmth. This is what truly keeps audiences coming back year after year, and WaterTower has proven again how nice it is to be naughty.
Photo by Kelsey Leigh Ervi