Acerbic Adventures in 'Santaland'

Confessions of a Christmas elf:
Confessions of a Christmas elf: "Santaland Diaries' " Crumpet (John Harrell). (By Mary Lane)
By Raymond M. Lane
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 23, 2005

A lot of people think Christmas stinks. The treacly sentimentality, the caustic mix of materialism and rat-a-tat-tat of that dratted little drummer boy perhaps sours their holiday mood.

For these people, there is the "Santaland Diaries."

Radio heads will remember humorist David Sedaris first reading the "Diaries" on National Public Radio on Dec. 23, 1992. The eight-minute essay (still available online at ) was unforgettable, an autobiographical confession of a penniless, gay, would-be soap opera writer named Crumpet working as an elf at Macy's mega-department store on Herald Square in New York.

The voice was a kind of Cabbage Patch thing, the love child of Betty Boop and Corey Flintoff worrying over a button. Sedaris deadpanned in that strange little voice the humiliations, hurt and humor he memorialized in his diary, recollections of the kids and parents who came to see Santa Claus and all the elves helping him at the store.

Sedaris won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2001. He makes a good living today writing confessional humor -- "I'm so helpless" wiseacre takes on life -- and the "Diaries" have been adapted for the stage by director Joe Mantello of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" fame. Mantello's stage version of the "Santaland Diaries" has become a seasonal cottage industry, running on college campuses and at regional theaters across the country.

The closest iteration of the stage "Diaries" is in Staunton, Va., at the Blackfriars Playhouse. It alternates opposite the company's "Christmas Carol" as an intentional "sweet and sour" theatrical riff on the holidays. There's the sugar plum of Dickens's classic countered by the vinegar of Sedaris. Through New Year's Eve, Shakespearean actor John Harrell -- class of '88 at Yorktown High School in Arlington -- offers for the second consecutive Christmas a memorable Crumpet.

This Crumpet has little of the soft-toned public radio persona or that engaging and furtive "I'm letting you in on a secret" conceit Sedaris uses so well.

Mantello's Crumpet is a foul-mouthed eccentric who pitilessly limns the souls and desperate lives of those around him.

He makes fun of disabled children, failed hygiene and sexual impossibilities that have nothing to do with goodwill toward men. There are fistfights, vomiting and shoals of bad behavior and worse language at play on this stage.

"What ought to be . . . snow and family and friends," as Sedaris observes elsewhere in the "Dairies," becomes instead a vision of Christmas cruelty.

Tallish, lanky and physically imposing on stage, Harrell lays out Crumpet as if he were an adjunct -- a strange and unhappy buddy -- of Falstaff himself. The character's merriment and lunging about the stage are worthy of Henry IV, as Harrell practically spills into the audience, reaching and touching the paying customers sitting closest to the action.

And it's funny. Harrell has command of a rich repertoire of voices and their body language -- dopey teenagers, 4-year-old sweetie pies, lacerating Long Island matrons, brutish husbands and flirting dandies, a rib-cracking Carmen Miranda imitation and even a convincing "Away in a Manger" belted out as a Neil Diamond anthem.

With just a chair, a briefcase and a tidy hour to tell his tale, Harrell works a miracle of character exposition, all the while stripping off his casual clothes to don an elf costume of candy cane leggings, a velvet jumper and puffy short shorts.

The show races through vignette after vignette -- none of them harking the herald -- to conclude with Harrell rendering a tired mother pitilessly threatening her exhausted 4-year-old daughter as they line up for her turn to sit on the lap of an equally grumpy Santa on Christmas Eve.

The audience stills. It brings a lump to the throat, whether one gives a fig or not for the commercial enterprise known as Christmas.

"It's not about the child, or Santa, or Christmas, or anything," the elf offers the suddenly quieted audience. "But the parents' idea of a world they cannot make work for their children."

The Santaland Diaries Blackfriars Playhouse 877-682-4236 Through Dec. 31

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