Theater Review: THE SANTALAND DIARIES (Diversionary Theatre in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on December 6, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


It’s hard to go wrong with this script, as writer David Sedaris’s biting wit, which has made him an NPR favorite for years, delights the cynic in us all. While it’s fine-and-dandy getting into the holiday spirit, one cannot be completely blind to the craziness that goes with it. Now multiply that feeling exponentially if your whole world is about Christmas. Especially if you’re David Sedaris.

The Santaland Diaries takes us back to David at age 33 and far from successful yet. Desperate for money (and on a dare from his roommate), he succumbs to taking a job he is tremendously poorly-suited for: being a seasonal elf for the children in Manhattan’s Macy’s Christmas Santaland. This job requires an unbelievable level of cheer. As he describes one co-worker: “Any more enthusiasm and they would have had to sedate her.” Sedaris, on the other hand, is wry, impatient, quick to sarcastic reply, not a particular fan of children, and even less of a fan of inconsiderate, doting parents. Through many laugh-out-loud lines, his suffering as Crumpet the Elf is cause for much joy on our part.

The play started as an essay by Sedaris. His reading of it on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992 was his big break. It was so well-received that a longer version of it was aired on Ira Glass’s This American Life in 1996, around which time Joe Mantello adapted it into this monologue for the stage.

At Diversionary, Wil Bethmann deftly portrays Sedaris, committing to memory a tremendous load in this one-man, intermission-free production. The pacing is quick, and Bethmann ably conjures up images of the not-so-pretty, behind-the-scenes world of Christmas magic: Santas that hit on Moms; children terrified of the white-bearded man; parents who essentially torture their child for the sake of one good photo; and elfin jealousies (“everyone is drawn to the dwarf, but she’s just coasting on her looks!”).

Bethmann guides us to the crescendo of the final shopping day before Christmas, when several PTSD-weary elves call in sick, knowing it’s the last and worst day. While duty calls and the queues to meet Santa intensify, Bethmann confides to us, “It was us again them,” as the torment unfolds.

The set is terrific. While there’s no way little Diversionary can replicate the hugeness of New York Macy’s at Christmas, Justin Humphries’ oversized boxes and other Santa paraphernalia capture enough for us to get a good taste of it, allowing us to imagine, “What if it was like this … but it went on for another half mile?”

Under Anthony Methvin’s tight direction, Bethmann is sharp-witted and rapid-fire in his delivery. It works, but those who remember Arnie Burton in the delightful Old Globe production may miss a bit of the largesse and clownishness he brought to the role, milking every laugh further than Bethmann does. A bit more of that might take this already very good production to the next level. When Bethmann does go there (as when he imagines an alternate “Satanland”) the energy surges.

Accordingly, with Bethmann’s more staccato style, the program only runs one hour. Still, it’s an hour packed with scathing insights and fast-paced witticisms that are probably a bit truer to how Sedaris might deliver it himself than how the Globe portrayed him. Bethmann clearly earns the ovation received at the end of this and left us wishing for a merry Christmas for all and for all a good night. Especially the elves.

As a bonus, the show comes with a 40-minute optional add-on downstairs, showcasing the remarkable Linda Libby (so terrific starring in Gypsy at ion theatre years back). For a sweet chaser to Sedaris’s bittersweet humor, join her for a lovely time with Linda Libby’s HoliGay Storytime. Again under Methvin’s direction, Libby delivers five gay-themed stories (including “The Gay Subtext of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) interspersed with a bit of informal sing-along time. The perfect nightcap!

photos courtesy of Diversionary Theatre

The Santaland Diaries
Diversionary Theatre
4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights
Thurs at 7; Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on Dec 22, 2019
for tickets, call 619.220.0097 or visit Diversionary

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