Confession time: I’m not just a Scrooge at Christmas, I’m an equal-opportunity Scrooge when it comes to holidays. I don’t know how I got to this place (although this year it’s more understandable than most), but it’s where I am.
That’s where David is, too. He’s NPR-darling humorist David Sedaris, new to New York City in the 1990s and unemployed. He was sure he was going to step into the Big Apple and right onto the set of his beloved “One Life to Live.” Alas, this dream never manifested. And rent was due.
The one-man (elf) show “The Santaland Diaries” — currently on stage at Actors Theatre — is adapted by Joe Mantello based on Sedaris’ actual diaries during this time period when, on a dare, he applies to be a Macy’s holiday elf and goes through a rigorous interview period, a week of “elf school,” and a month of service to the Big Man himself, Santa.
Of course, this fish-out-of-water story wouldn’t be funny if Sedaris was well-suited for the job. Nope, he’s the grumbliest elf on staff. (Thankfully not the perviest or the stupidest — those superlatives belong to other workmates.)
The production, directed by Meredith McDonough, is staged in the intimate Victor Jory Theatre on a set that goes from bare to opening up like a cheery advent calendar over the course of the show thanks to scenic designer William Boles.
Sedaris, later “Crumpet the Elf,” is played by Actors Theatre regular Nathan Keepers, who most recently directed “39 Steps” and starred in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Keepers is delightful.
He’s not aping Sedaris, who has performed this piece at readings for more than two decades and voiced the audiobook in which the story appears, but he retains much of Sedaris’ mania and snark in his delivery. McDonough has him activating every inch of the stage and engaging the audience, sometimes uncomfortably, with the story.
At times, the material doesn’t hold up well in 2017. There’s a bit about how hard it is to pronounce certain children’s names that relies heavily on mockery of ethnic names. There’s another bit that has Crumpet mocking children with disabilities that also didn’t sit well.
But it’s also nice to see how far we’ve come when an adult making fun of a child named “Vaneesha” literally made me and my theater companion simultaneously cringe.
Most of the hilarity holds up well, much of it inherent to the premise itself. Who knew such serious and massive mechanizations went into maintaining this yearly institution of cheer? An entire week of elf school? A small army of different Santas? Just the sheer number of elf jobs is chuckle-worthy.
“You can be an Entrance Elf, a Water Cooler Elf, a Bridge Elf, Train Elf, Maze Elf, Island Elf, Magic Window Elf, Emergency Exit Elf, Counter Elf, Magic Tree Elf, Pointer Elf, Santa Elf, Photo Elf, Usher Elf, Cash Register Elf, or Exit Elf,” Sedaris explains.
In the end, Keepers is a keeper. Sorry, I had to go there. He’s currently my theater companion’s favorite stalwart at Actors. (I have a different favorite, but I’ll keep that to myself.) One-person shows are a special kind of theater undertaking — I can’t imagine the pressure. But Keepers revealed none of that effort in his performance.
“The Santaland Diaries” is not Sedaris’ most riotously funny stories (that would be “Jesus Shaves,” in my opinion), but it’s a good holiday laugh in a year where we need all the laughs we can get.
Note that the play is very short, just one hour and five minutes. My companion joked that we should have gotten a discount on our garage parking. Also, the bar only takes cash. Do not be late; as with all shows in the Victor Jory, there’s no late seating, and if you leave during a performance, you can’t come back in (so do your business beforehand).
The show continues through Dec. 23. Tickets start at $60. Actors suggests the play is good for ages 13+.