PicksInSix Theater Review: The Santaland Diaries
“This was really going to happen!”
Throughout Matt Crowle’s remarkable performance in “The Santaland Diaries” that opened at the Goodman Theatre on Thursday, dozens of delightfully quirky, 1980s era personalities pour out with genuinely touching, and often frightfully irreverent, observations that collectively tell the story of a short-lived, but memorable, stint as a Macy’s elf named Crumpet. The material is rooted in the personal experiences, and fertile comic mind, of David Sedaris whose 1992 National Public Radio holiday essay evolved into the 1996 Off-Broadway one-man show (adapted with Joe Mantello). Crowle’s solo debut is directed by Steve Scott and plays out in and around a colorful and impressive reproduction of a Santaland outpost at Macy’s Herald Square courtesy of designer Kevin Depinet.
The play, essential at this time of year for those looking for an escape from the days of “merry and bright” as well as those who relate to the six weeks leading up to Christmas as an opportunity to throw themselves into retail, is a bit of a time capsule. For those of us who remember, it is a look back at how different things were when Phil Collins was a rock star and kids pressed their faces up to the two-way mirror to catch a glimpse of Cher, only to find St. Nick. And then again, when it comes to our deepest sensibilities, little has really changed, proving just how much of a chestnut it is.
If you are a regular listener to the holiday broadcast, large passages of “The Santaland Diaries” will be hilariously familiar. What you are not able to imagine, until you have settled into your seat at the Owen, is the inspired interpretation that Crowle brings to his jaded, frenetic and heartily endearing Crumpet that makes this a laugh-filled, impish joyride from destitute actor to persecuted full-time elf.
If this is your first time, you will certainly revel in Crowle’s unique brand of pathos with Sedaris’ satiric, edgy, adult-only commentary. All is fair game, especially if one is dressed in a green velvet smock, candy cane striped tights and an elf hat decorated with spangles, which Crowle first dons with the declaration “This was really going to happen.”
Consider characters as wide-ranging as the presumptuous Santa Santa, an array of bratty kids, manic moms and sexist dads to the complexities of the Santaland support system of window elves, exit elves, store managers, supervisors and, at least one, cheerleader. Crowle dishes them out effortlessly, one character to the next, imparting Crumpet’s wily point of view along the way as the days click down to Christmas Eve.
The pre-show announcement about the cast being available in the lobby after the show to collect for Season of Concern drew a smattering of laughter from those who realized that this was a one-man show. After more than 70 minutes on stage, there was Matt Crowle in the lobby, collecting for the charity that is so important to the well-being of the Chicago theatrical community now and throughout the year. While I made a small donation as I passed by, it reminded me that one should never show up to the theater without some cash (or a check) in your pocket at this time of year, particularly on the night when you just might run into an appealing elf at the door.
The Santaland Diaries
Directed by Steve Scott
through December 30th
170 North Dearborn