The most important things in life, according to Mitchell J. Fain of This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Xmas Miracles), are “a roof over your head, someone to love you, and a story to tell.” On this opening night of his new production—he did 252 shows of The Santaland Diaries over the last eight year with tremendous success—Fain, who spoke often of his small apartment in Boystown and whose boyfriend was in the house, had plenty of stories to tell to an appreciative and enthusiastic audience. With the help of pianist Julie B. Nichols and songs sung by Meghan Murphy, Fain proved every bit as entertaining doing his own material as he ever did doing his previous show.
Presenting informally from a lovely set designed by Courtney O’Neill that’s part living room, part cabaret, Fain ingratiated himself to the audience from the start by engaging several of them in conversation. When the first two people he spoke to were reviewing the show, he asked if everyone in the house was. “That’s OK,” he said. “I’m a critics’ darling.”
The evening is partly improvisation such as that, partly prepared story-telling, and partly musical entertainment. The mix is seemingly freeform, with Fain as the genial, friendly host engaging us in tales from his life and allowing Murphy the chance to strut her stuff to complement his stories. Some of her songs are humorous pieces directly related to him, like the opening number about his hailing from Rhode Island in which she runs through several states with their real or mythical associations (in one particularly broad rhyme, New Hampshire apparently makes camp chairs) and always comes back to noting that what Rhode Island is famous for is Fain. Hyperbole, sure, but it sets up the evening well. At other times, Murphy sings Christmas songs related to the mood of the story that was just told.
The evening is all about the stories, and the first one is about the fact that a young Fain had none to tell. He was happily situated and everything was moving along smoothly in his life until he realized this. At that point he blew up his happy life and moved from Rhode Island to Chicago because…well, why not? It gives Murphy a chance to sing “Chicago,” and she completely goes to town on it, so it was worth it for that alone.
Fain is a very personable and personal storyteller, and the night covers all sorts of things from his first relationship in Chicago (“with a Polish vampire named Teducz”) to his relationship with his “dysfunctional” birth family as well as his godmother (his Jewish aunt who married an Italian and converted), and he pulls no punches. “My father was old school,” he tells us, “and by old school I mean he was a douchebag.” His mother’s incessant lying and alcoholism are running themes. But there is no hint of anger in his narratives: he tells these tales not to get back at bad parents but to tell difficult truths that lead up to painful moments. His tales are laced with humor, and it’s easy to sense an appreciation for, if nothing else, the stories his terrifically weak parents left him.
Along with his parents and being Jewish, being gay is a major theme of the narratives. (On several occasions of self-deprecating humorous thoughts, he interrupted himself to ask, “Did I mention I’m gay?”) But it is a poignant story of his coming out in the early 80s—an event that happened, as he tells it, by accident—that allows him to reveal depths of himself and talk more about his relationship with his Aunt Robin. It’s a beautiful tale, beautifully told.
There are two stories of death here, his aunt and his mother, and they couldn’t be more different. By far the longer one is about his mother, and it moves from poignant to humorous to angry to contemplative to philosophical so easily that it’s clear Fain has been telling this story for a long time. Master storytellers know just how to capture their audiences, and Fain has us eating from his hand here.
By its very nature, this is a show that will be slightly different each night, but it is certain to be wonderful every time it is performed. I’d pay to listen to Murphy sing to Nichols’ piano for ninety minutes, and here that’s just a bonus: Fain has found plenty of stories to tell and he shares them generously. Director Jeremy Wechsler has helped arrange a loose-feeling, free-flowing evening that ultimately ties together perfectly, Mike Durst’s lights and Jeffrey Levin’s sound are perfect, and the performers are so good that you don’t want it to end. This one may run for the next eight years, if Fain and Murphy want it to.
This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Xmas Miracles) is now playing at Theatre Wit, 1229 W Belmont in Chicago, until December 30. Performance dates and times vary; check website. Tickets are $34 and are available from Theatre Wit. Half-price tickets are available. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.
Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member