For years I have shunned Theater Wit’s annual staging of David Sedaris’s The Santaland Diaries because Sedaris himself wasn’t performing. As a hardcore Sedaris fan, I took no chances. Ever.
Mea culpa. Crumpet has found another worthy alter-ego: Mitchell Fain. Throughout the one-person show, Fain exquisitely embodies the dangerously irreverent, martini-dry wit of Sedaris’s script (adapted by Joe Mantello). Within moments, Fain has the audience in the palm of his hand with an irreverent Sedaris reference. “If you thought you were going to see David Sedaris tonight, you’re shit out of luck.” From then on, Fain makes Sedaris’s stories his own, giving inflections and asides that are perfectly bitter and biting.
The Santaland Diaries begins with the protagonist, Crumpet, floundering as a newcomer to New York City, jobless and dreaming of being adopted by the cast of One Life to Live. He takes the job as a Macy’s elf, but, as it turns out, between the boredom and repeatedly asking costumers to “step on the Magic Star and you can see Santa!” being a Santaland employee is less than glamorous. To liven things up, Crumpet begins instructing visitors to “step on the Magic Star and you can see Cher!” When the masses realize the diva is not, in fact, hanging out in Santa’s house, things get ugly. As they do when racist parents demand their children visit with a “traditional” as opposed to “a Chocolate Santa.”
The role of Crumpet requires an actor to move between the sublime, the absurd, bad behavior, and just enough human decency to keep you from giving up on him. Fain nails it. I defy anyone to refrain from laughing when Crumpet starts dishing about that little “cock tease” Snowball, the elf who leads on numerous Santas.
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler, The Santaland Diaries is a blessed event for all those who have already tired of Sugar Plum Fairies. With his deft combination of wicked humor and scalpel-sharp observation, Sedaris’s script is a vivid, hilarious portrait of family Christmas.
The Santaland Diaries continues through Dec. 30 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. For ticket information, go to theaterwit.org.
Catey Sullivan is Chicago magazine’s contributing theater critic
Photograph: Johnny Knight