By Jay Handleman, Herald Tribune, Dec. 6, 2017
Play adapted from David Sedaris’ story runs through Dec. 23.
Christmas comes in many styles at Venice Theatre this season. There’s the playful musical “A Christmas Story” that continues through Sunday, followed by the 18th season of the company’s own version of “A Christmas Carol.”
And now there’s the naughty and more mischievous “Santaland Diaries” playing in the Pinkerton Theatre, which has been turned into a slightly warped, overstated version of a department store Santa display.
That’s where Tim Wisgerhof is putting a lot of effort into giving life to David Sedaris’ now classic short story about his horrifying experience working as one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s flagship store at Herald Square in Manhattan.
Wisgherof, who also designed the colorfully over-the-top set with its large Santa throne, oversized candy canes and decorated trees, plays an out-of-work man who is $20 away from finding a job walking dogs— or so he says. Instead, he applies for and gets a seasonal job as an elf in Macy’s holiday display. He’s desperate and cynical, and fortifies himself with nips from a flask he keeps in a nearby bag.
With increasing frustration, he takes us step-by-step through his experience beginning with the awkward job interview and elf-training boot camp. He complains about his costume (candy cane-striped stockings and bells around his neck), the different jobs he is assigned to keep the young ones entertained on the long line, the barfing children, the blisters on his feet and the manipulative, sometimes racist, parents.
Sedaris first told this tale in a 1992 NPR broadcast before the story was published. Joe Mantello, an actor who is now one of Broadway’s most prominent directors, adapted it for the stage four years later, and it has become a frequent alternative to the more traditional Christmas fare presented at this time of year at theaters around the country. With its frank story and strong language, it is certainly not for children.
The play is open to wide interpretation. I’ve seen sad sack characters and more cheery ones. Wisgerhof, working under director Dennis J. Clark, plays something in between. His character (we only know his elf name, Crumpet), is sardonic and prone to histrionics. He plays it broadly, which triggers some laughs, but the heightened showiness of the performance made it more difficult to fully believe Wisgerhof in the role.
There’s a lot of shtick, particularly involving food and drink — Wisergof eats frequently and washes it down with gulps from his flask or a martini he pours from a shaker and shares with patrons. He looks like he’s having fun and is almost constantly in motion, speaking directly to audience members, shimmying to the never-ending Christmas carols, or growing increasingly frantic and angry as the hurried crowds get more tense as Christmas approaches.
And then there’s an unexpected moment that reminds Crumpet of what the season is all about, that allows Wisgerhof a chance to display a keen sensitivity. Maybe this is more than a job. Or is that just a fantasy or the impact of the booze? Crumpet doesn’t say. He’s going to leave you to wonder as you make your own holiday preparations. But maybe you’ll look more kindly on those hard-working elves trying to make the season a little bit brighter for you and your family.