By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In a cage match, Crumpet the Elf could kick the cranberries off Ebenezer Scrooge and still have the energy to stomp Tiny Tim and the Ghost of Christmas Past. Don't mess with Crumpet, the nom de Noel of writer David Sedaris. His mean and funny chronicle of time served as a knickers-clad gnome at Macy's flagship store, first read in essay form by the author on NPR in 1992, was adapted into the short play The Santaland Diaries, now playing at 11 p.m. at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.
The show's an annual R-rated treat for laugh-needing theatergoers who grok the Grinch more than the cheery goodwill of A Christmas Carol. In Santaland we glimpse life on the other side of the "magic window," where parents smack kids for crying in the department store Santa line and blithely instruct the tots to pee on artificial snow banks. Visitors to Saint Nick are described in grotesque detail, from the "severely retarded" to the "horribly deformed."
In the one-actor, one-act play adapted by Joe Mantello, Crumpet/Sedaris has become an elf-for-hire out of desperation. New to New York, dreaming of acting on One Life to Live, he is "$20 away from walking dogs" when he sees the ad for holiday help. What's worse, he asks after his first interview, "getting the job as an elf or not getting it?"
Crumpet acts as the bitter pill among sugarplum fairies. Forced to flatter every customer, he becomes "immune to compliments." A flirtation with another elf gets him down. "Snowball just leads elves on," Crumpet complains. Trapped in tinsel-draped hell, he imagines "Satanland," staffed with giggly imps guiding newcomers into a snaking queue to the fiery depths.
Anyone who's ever worked retail in December can relate. Pushy customers, blistered feet and low hourly pay cast a Dickensian pall on the most stalwart holiday spirits. Santaland is not entirely without sentiment though. Sedaris and Mantello candy-coat Crumpet's sarcasm just enough at the end to let the audience leave feeling chipper, which probably makes this script a whole lot more commercial than it would have been otherwise. So popular is The Santaland Diaries show, Sedaris, who now writes for The New Yorker and has collections of humorous essays (the latest titled When You Are Engulfed in Flames) burning up the best-seller lists, probably could live comfortably on just the royalties from the hundreds of performances of it every December.
For seven consecutive years Addison's WaterTower Theatre staged it, with Crumpet played for six of those by Dallas actor Nye Cooper. (They tried another actor in 2006, and he was such an uneasy fit in the curly-toed shoes, they closed the show early.) This year WaterTower went a different direction with a one-man version of It's a Wonderful Life (reviewed a few paragraphs hence). That left Cooper and Santaland—a plummy pairing of player and play—to be snapped up by Contemporary. The show has a new look with a better, brighter set design by Rodney Dobbs and a snazzier costume by Aaron Patrick Turner, and more laughs than ever, thanks to director Coy Covington.
At WaterTower, Cooper was always reliably funny, but his Crumpet there tended more toward troll than elf, with heavy bites to the sarcasm and pacing that dragged. In CTD's Santaland, Covington has given it a frothy spritz of silly and angled Crumpet into a more likable, gossipy guy. Cooper performs now with a Kathy Griffin-esque conspiratorial twinkle. "Now get this," he seems to say as he launches into more dirt about his fellow elves. The audience leans in close to get every word.
The whole show feels refreshed and refocused thanks to Covington's skill as a comedy director and Cooper's crackling sense of comic timing and talent for voices (he does Crumpet doing Billie Holiday singing "Away in the Manger"). And thanks to the multi-leveled set, Cooper can move. At WaterTower he delivered dialogue draped on Santa's big chair.
Funny, huh, that Charles Dickens and David Sedaris are two of America's favorite authors of Christmas fare. One's for those who prefer the traditional spin to ye olde yuletide. And the other's for the rest of us who enjoy goofing on all that goo along with Satan's little helper.————
Also at Contemporary, playing more or less as lead-in to Santaland, is the spritely musical revue Closer Than Ever, which has nothing to do with holidays, making it excellent entertainment for atheists. Or for those who simply enjoy some fa-la-la-free singing by four of Dallas' best: Paul Taylor, Megan Kelly Bates, Cameron McElyea and Mary Gilbreath Grim.
Composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., created two hours of charming songs about falling in love, breaking up and trying again. Each tune expresses some intimate or poignant emotion, the lyrics reflecting what men and women secretly think about relationships but rarely express aloud. Such as the first wife's advice to the second in "Another Wedding Song." Or how a woman longs for the man in her life to be "There" more often. The most touching is "If I Sing," a tribute to a father performed superbly by Taylor.