Chicago Reviews

The Santaland Diaries is a hilarious antidote to excessive Christmas cheer

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Cody Nieset.

So you’re shopping at Christkindlmarket and want to end your evening by taking in a holiday show that appeals to your naughtier side rather than your nice side? Just a block away, the Goodman Theatre has an answer for you. At a little over an hour long, David Sedaris’s The Santaland Diaries won’t stretch your evening too much, but it will send you home with a smile on your face if not a bit of an ache in your side from laughing too heartily. 

Sedaris’ 1992 reflection on his days employed as a Macy’s Christmas elf (adapted into a play in 1996 by Joe Mantello) is probably not the typical holiday fare, certainly not as much as the other play currently at the Goodman, A Christmas Carol. This one-man show, performed by Steven Strafford and directed by Steve Scott, is a hilariously sardonic view of the season through the eyes of someone who finds himself plunked right into its epicenter, and who therefore sees both sides of the craziness that is Christmas in America. As Strafford himself says, “Most people, I think, find themselves battling between being the sort of person who enjoys the lights, music, and joy of the holidays with being someone who can’t help noticing the rampant commercialism and crass displays.” Through the character of the disgruntled Crumpet the Elf, audiences “get to explore the odd sense of never being quite as joyful as we’re told we’re supposed to be.”

Crumpet walks us through a bizarrely extensive job application process (I mean, come on: this is for employment as an elf) and elf training sessions taught by overly enthusiastic mentors (“Give me an S! Give me an A! Give me an N! Give me T! Let’s bring back that A! What’s it spell? Santa! Santa! Santa!”) before arriving at the elaborate Santaland itself, a huge reproduction of Christmas clichĂ©s from giant candy canes to a forest of decorated trees…and, of course, Santa himself. (The set, designed by Kevin Depinet, doesn’t try to show the whole thing but focuses on Santa’s throne itself in a wonderfully bright, upbeat, colorful depiction of what lies at the end of the hour-long Santaland line.) As Crumpet tells us about the various things his job entails, he’s also walking us through Santaland and letting us meet the many types of people who work there (especially many different versions of Santa) as well as the multitudes who come through for a chance to sit on St. Nick’s lap. And, from his descriptions (especially, it must be said, of some of the parents), it must be difficult indeed to stay as pumped and enthusiastic at all times as he is required to be.

Since the source material is literally written as diary entries, there is a bit of intrinsic choppiness at times when one “entry” comes to an end and another begins, but Strafford’s highly personal performance makes this moot. (Christopher Kriz’s sound transitions help also.) Scott encourages him to let Crumpet’s emotions have full reign here, and Strafford’s movements, gestures and deliveries bring the complications and contradictions of being a paid representation of Christmas cheer to life, especially when you happen to be a man in his thirties who knows how ridiculous he must look in the adorable elf costume designed by Rachel Lambert. (BTW, Mr. Strafford, since you specifically ask for this opinion in the program, I think you totally rock the candy cane tights.)

The Santaland Diaries is a blunt, very funny look at the strange and sometimes irrational ways in which we behave at this time of year. Though there are indeed moments of pure Christmas spirit here, the bulk of the play consists of Sedaris’s very adult, sometimes profane, always uproarious observations about the stress of the holiday season, and let’s be honest: don’t you sometimes just need that kind of release this time of year? 

The Santaland Diaries is now playing at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, until Dec 29. The show runs approximately 65 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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