Chicago Theater Review: THIS WAY OUTTA SANTALAND (AND OTHER XMAS MIRACLES) (Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 7, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

CRUMPET COMES CLEAN

For 8 boffo holiday seasons at Theater Wit, Mitchell Fain has been better known—and locally famous—as Crumpet, the irascible, impish and subversive Macy’s elf in David Sedaris’s hilarious monologue The Santaland Diaries (based loosely on Gogol’s equally manic Diary of a Madman). A trouper in tights, Mitchell Fain only missed theater-wit-santaland-diaries-mitchell-fain_2-credit-johnny-knight2 of 252 performances (due to the flu). Now it’s time for Fain, a 50-year-old gay actor who’s spent half his life in Chicago, to move on or at least break loose, coming into his own, discarding the jester’s cap and bells, and, for a change, letting life equal rather than imitate art.

In little more than an hour, amid musical distractions from cabaret singer (and former roommate) Meghan “Big Red” Murphy and accompanist Julie B. Nichols, Fain does what comes naturally: In a gaily decorated rec room with a piano, couch (for confessions), bar, four Nutcrackers, and a semi-abstract Christmas tree in the background, Fain works the crowd. Occasionally dabbling in Q & A segments, he essentially becomes his own bio. Whether it’s a swan song for an eight-year elf or a second coming out for Fain, This Way Outta Santaland (and other Xmas miracles) feels like classic therapy through theater.

With his crowd-pleasing mix of mischievous sassiness and a less patented disarming intensity, Fain relates his unpromising origins in densely populated Rhode Island. There his alcoholic, dysfunctional, atheistic, and financially-challenged Jewish family would toil in the jewelry factories. No love was lost between this middle child and his abusive dad and a mother too intimidated to make things right.

theater-wit-santaland-diaries-mitchell-fain_1-credit-johnny-knight

But what seemed birth’s bad luck was broken by perceptive teachers who sensed his promise. Fain’s penchant for make-believe was encouraged by a theater degree at the University of Rhode Island and confirmed when Fain moved to Chicago in 1991 and found his calling—with E. B. White’s Stuart Little as his role model for feisty independence.

theater-wit-santaland-diaries-mitchell-fain_3-credit-johnny-knightThe most harrowing confession in Theater Wit’s short show—the disturbing details not to be divulged—concerns a kind of fractured deathbed reconciliation between Mitchell and his mom. It’s followed by an ugly episode at the overbooked funeral parlor where the family wanted to cremate her remains. The revelations are wrenchingly self-lacerating, a far cry from the catty gossip that Crumpet dished out in his diary.

What’s curiously missing in this supposedly improvised This Way Outta Santaland is much mention of his years performing in Santaland Diaries or how it felt to disappear nightly into Sedaris’s gay and grumpy Macy’s minion. Did the role choose or change the actor? Were Crumpet’s unavoidable humiliations replicated in the actor’s love-hate relationship with unpredictable holiday crowds? Did life imitate art?

Each time I saw Diaries I marveled at how Fain, much like John McGivern’s tour-de-force in the equally long-running Shear Madness, could placate, charm and finally seduce the most cynical (and occasionally inebriated) audiences. It was the classic case of an endearing gay jester killing a crowd with kindness and camp, the class clown who repeatedly charms the lunchroom bullies and keeps his milk money. How could you not love Crumpet?

Mitchell Fain in Santaland Diaries. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Those secrets are still safe. Contrary to the press release, this very personal showcase is not about “eight seasons starring in The Santaland Diaries.” At most it’s a prequel to that unshared experience. What we do discover—in effect, “the way outta Rhode Island”—is sweetly sour and serenely sad, a testament to survival through sheer simulation. But for many Fain fans this theatrical bait-and-switch will not suffice.

photos of Mitchell Fain (from Santaland Diaries) by Johnny Knight

This Way Outta Santaland (and other Xmas miracles)
Theater Wit, 1229 N. Belmont
Thurs-Sat at 7:30 (added shows Dec. 21 & 23)
ends on December 23, 2016
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit Theater Wit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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