The Hilariously Dark Side of Christmas in “Santaland Diaries”

By Eva Phillips

There’s an inescapable dread and ennui that comes with the holiday season. If the despotic demands to buy the best gifts, prepare the best meals, and have the best life-changes to dazzle family and friends with your holiday card doesn’t break your spirit, the crippling seasonal depression of the endlessly dark days probably will. Where does all the rage we harbor and yuletide sorrow we are plagued with go as we wander through the bleak abyss of the holiday hellscape? Well, more often than not, it usually gets directed at elves.

David Sedaris’ sardonic Christmas essay The Santaland Diaries, first read by Sedaris for NPR’s “This American Life” in 1992, chronicles the harrowingly intensive, arbitrarily regimented, and consistently degrading experiences of working as a Christmas elf at the lavish Santaland situated in the epicenter of commercial holiday mayhem, Macy’s. Mostly non-fictional, Santaland Diaries is told from the POV from a down-and-out, peak ne’er-do-well Sedaris as he trains to become one of the gleeful, bell-adorned helpers of Santa. City Theater’s latest production brings Sedaris’ essay, as adapted for stage by Joe Mantello in 1996, to life, starring the radiantly engaging wunderkind Shua Potter as the cantankerous Macy’s elf-for-pay.

Audiences attending City’s adaptation of Santaland Diaries, directed with smart aplomb by the endlessly talented Monteze Freeland, are treated to an irreverently delightful opening performance/TED Talk featuring Mrs. Rachel Klaus (some may claim Mrs. Klaus eerily resembles Potter’s drag persona, but those people don’t have the true Christmas spirit in their hearts). Stalling for her husband (you remember old Nick, right?), Mrs. Klaus, bedecked in the most sumptuous red number (one of the many stellar costume pieces by Madison Hack), cavorts around the stage, regaling the crowd with North Pole relationship anecdotes, Pittsburgh observational quips, and some jazzy, Babs-inspired Christmas medleys.

This opening is the perfect aperitif to stimulate the audience’s performance palate for the feast that Potter gleefully lays out over his journey through Santaland. Quite literally prancing across yet another exquisitely designed, Tony Ferrieri set (that is the candy-caned, red-and-green-drenched marvel that a Macy’s window-designer would kill to create), Potter leads us through the desperation of the over-30, unemployed writer as he learns the horrifying nicknames for all the hot vomit-spots around Santa’s throne; deprograms his identity by adopting his new elf persona and name (Krumpet); and strengthens his already powerful misanthropy through the ghastly observations of humankind during the holidays.

Much of the charm of Sedaris’ writing (that remains prevalent in Mantello’s stage adaptation), is the almost-woke, white man brand of cultural criticism that gets perilously close to exposing or eviscerating what lies beneath the banal evils of everyday life, but backs away with an up-turned nose at the very last moment. Santaland Diaries could easily be David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster with jingle bells–it as hilariously bleak as it is unnervingly pointed in appraising obsessive American cultural fetishism and ritualism. Potter is effervescent and entirely engrossing in animating this brand of droll, deprecating observational humor inherit to essayists. His physical acting is as honed and delightfully expressive as his overall dramaturgical abilities, and his ease in quickly oscillating between extremes–like curmudgeonly, stoner-monologuing and impassioned, soap opera reenactments and daydreaming (a wonderful, recurring motif)–makes his performance a captivating success.

Santaland Diaries is a stupendous showing of craftmanship and true joy from the entire talented team involved. In a season besotted with overbearing festive redundancy, Santaland Diaries offers a refreshing, if not also comically dark and bleak, take on all things merry and bright. Santaland Diaries plays at the Lester Hamburg Studio at City Theatre through Dec. 22nd. For more information, visit City’s homepage.

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