Beginning as an essay for NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992, David Sedaris’ The SantaLand Diaries has become a holiday classic in both book and audio formats. Sedaris, who was raised in Raleigh, has made a career of publicly sharing his most humiliating moments with a trademark dry wit.
In 1996, a much longer version of the brief essay was featured on This American Life. It was quickly adapted into a one-man, one-act stage play by Broadway actor-director and UNC School of the Arts graduate Joe Mantello. The role of David/Crumpet, originated by Timothy Olyphant, has become a favorite seasonal character for twentysomething and thirtysomething — and sometimes fortysomething — actors across the country.
It has been noted that David Sedaris’ story is more fiction than fact (though he did work as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand), but that does not stop his sarcastic, cynical tale from earning big laughs.
Theatre in the Park’s 12th annual production of the show again stars Triangle theater regular Jesse R. Gephart. It may have been designed as a replacement for the long-running A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote, starring Ira David Wood III.
Last Friday night, after a bit of a slow start, Gephart quickly picked up speed and pulled the audience in close to attend the tale. Gephart’s delivery is more animated than Sedaris’ NPR-dry reading, and that is as it should be. This is a different beast entirely. Gephart’s physical vocabulary and comedic timing keep the audience on board for most of the show.
There are plenty of asides and ad-libs in this production, something not usually tolerated in scripted material. However, Gephart finds great opportunities to play with the audience in-character, and it sometimes enhances the show. However, he occasionally goes on unnecessary tangents out-of-character or interrupts the flow of the monologue at inopportune moments. After 12 years, though, one cannot blame him for wanting to play a bit. Still, stage manager Marilyn Gormon follows his twists and turns with ease.
The set, designed by Thomas Mauney and built by Jeffrey Nugent, is a fairly accurate depiction of your annual mall visit to Santa, and is visually stimulating, to say the least. However, it is a bit grandiose for a one-man show, sometimes swallowing Jesse Gephart whole, especially as he moves upstage. Mauney’s lighting offers some excellent emphasis on particular moments, but Gephart isn’t always as well-lit as he needs to be, especially before the SantaLand set is fully revealed.
Many of the play’s references are dated by now (David Sedaris’ obsession with 1990s-era One Life to Live or parents lugging video cameras to meet Santa), but it does not distract and should probably be left as it is. However, a half-dozen uses of the word “retarded” is so unforgivable in this day and age that I’m shocked it hasn’t been changed. This earned an audible gasp from the audience, and Gephart lost the crowd’s affections for about 10 minutes after that.
One can argue that David/Crumpet is a “flawed character,” and that it speaks to his rude nature. But he is still meant to be the protagonist. We still have to like him. This line makes that hard. It needs to be changed. Yesterday.
Overall, TIP’s production of The SantaLand Diaries is very entertaining. While some jokes didn’t land (like any good stand-up comic, Jesse Gephart was sure to comment when this occurred), most of the show was engaging, funny and, eventually, quite moving. Gephart is to be commended for maintaining such high energy for such a length of time and for so many years. This is a show that is worth seeing at least once before Gephart retires it.
The show falls into PG-13 land for language.
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 11th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8276; and Dec. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Mary Cornatzer: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article118420428.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Dec. 11th Triangle Review review by Shannon Plummer-White, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/12/you-absolutely-must-see-jesse-r-gephart-in-the-santaland-diaries-at-theatre-in-the-park/.)
Theatre in the Park presents THE SANTALAND DIARIES, starring Jesse R. Gephart as David/Crumpet, at 8 p.m. Dec. 16 and 17 and 3 p.m. Dec. 18 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($15 TIP Members and $18 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or http://www.etix.com/.
SHOW: http://theatreinthepark.com/calendar/event/37/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/956303824534660/.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/, and https://www.facebook.com/theatreintheparkraleigh, https://twitter.com/TheatreInPark, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_in_the_Park.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
NOTE 2: This show contains adult humor and is “Not suitable for children,” according to TIP.
The SantaLand Diaries (1992 essay and 1996 play): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5066175 (1992 NPR reading by David Sedaris) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SantaLand_Diaries (Wikipedia).
The Script (excerpts): http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
David Sedaris (author): http://www.barclayagency.com/sedaris.html (official bio courtesy the Barclay Agency), http://www.npr.org/programs/specials/lists/sedaris/ (National Public Radio), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1358380/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Sedaris (Wikipedia).
Jesse R. Gephart (actor): http://facebook.com/jrgephart (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.