The SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris is, perhaps, my favorite short story by a beloved North Carolina author. That’s why I was particularly excited to see Theatre in the Park’s holiday one-man-show The SantaLand Diaries, starring Jesse R. Gephart as David Sedaris and his elfin alter ego, Crumpet. The show, which concludes its two-week run on Dec. 22-24 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre in Raleigh, provides a charged, irreverent holiday experience for theatergoers who want something a little less wholesome than the usual saccharine Christmas fare.
Joe Mantello’s adaptation of Sedaris’ autobiographical story captures all of the snark, wit, and scathing humor for which Sedaris is famous. It’s a sharp 90-minute joy to behold, although, in 2017, I do think it needs some editing.
I don’t doubt that the instances of the “R-word” (retard) and jokes at the expense of disabled patrons of Macy’s SantaLand were present in the 1992 original short story. But hearing those jokes in 2017 at Theatre in the Park, amidst an audience of uncomfortable audience members, was jarring.
Jesse Gephart as Sedaris’ character did read the room and warned the audience early in the show “If you don’t like that one…” warned that they wouldn’t like a joke later in the show. But it still dampened the overall experience. Of course, it is neither Gephart nor Theatre in the Park’s responsibility to censor or change an adaptation of the work. I would just hope that original Off-Broadway director and adapter Joe Mantello and Dramatists Play Service, Inc. would consider either omitting the jokes entirely or finding other jokes from the lengthy short story. I find that Sedaris’ greatest strength is punching up at the world we live in, rather than punching down at people with disabilities.
That being said, Gephart as the snarky Sedaris is a delight. At the start of the show, he did what I have only dreamed of doing: stopped the show and heckled multiple late-arrivers to the show. He held up his newspaper, and said “Oh no, I’ll wait” and waited until they were completely seated.
Throughout the show Jesse Gephart’s physical comedy and great comedic timing make you feel like you were in the room with David Sedaris himself. In addition, the constant heckling of audience members makes this show an engaging and fun experience, especially if you want a not-so-wholesome holiday show. There are even some surprisingly vulnerable moments, even with the sarcasm and jabs that make this show more than a roast of Christmas. Gephart’s performance is a celebration of both the mean humor and touching vulnerability Sedaris is so famous for.
In terms of technical elements, I loved the versatile and playful set design by Thomas Mauney. From the break room filled with boxes and props to the lettered cubes of SantaLand, from Santa’s elaborate throne to the colorful winter wonderland — the set really feels like the Macy’s of the short story, and gives Gephart a lot to play with.
In addition, the lighting design created a great environment. The general washes, bright reds, and even the stark blackouts help tell the story just as well as Gephart’s antics. That being said, while I appreciate the comedic effect of a lot of the blackouts, they can feel a little unnecessary, even though they do allow the Sedaris character to pop up all over the place. I just think there was maybe one too many of them.
I am also a big fan of costume designer Denise Schumaker’s design of the bright and garish Macy’s Elf outfit on Gephart. It really helped sell the world of the play and from an acting and directorial standpoint, I loved the choice to put a costume change right behind a curtain with Gephart yelling “What’s going on out there?!?” from behind it. Finally, some of the best sound design is almost completely unnoticeable and for The SantaLand Diaries at TIP, that is its own success. The voiceover, sound effects, preshow, and post-show feel natural and help inform the story.
Stage manager Marilyn Gormon — through all the lighting and sound cues, and following all of the ad-libs — creates a clean and seamless show that facilitates both the comedy and all the design choices of the whole cast and crew.
Overall, The Santaland Diaries is a great experience for Sedaris fans and novices alike who want to get a dose of the holiday spirit with a side of snark. Some less-tasteful jokes aside, Theatre in the Park provides a fun, interesting show that explains what it’s like to work through the holidays and what the holidays can bring whether you’re filled with cheer or not. Providing snark and joy, the relatable struggle of retail workers and touching moments — get your spot in line for The Santaland Diaries.
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 20th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-santaland-diaries/Event?oid=9981049.
Theatre in the Park presents THE SANTALAND DIARIES, starring Jesse R. Gephart as David Sedaris/Crumpet the Elf, at 8 p.m. Dec. 22 and 23 and 3 p.m. Dec. 24 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($16 TIP Season Members and $18 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or https://theatreinthepark.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S41000002Dqe0EAC.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or http://theatreinthepark.com/whatson/group-sales.
PARENTAL ADVISORY: TIP warns that this show is “Not intended for children” and is for “Mature audiences only.”
NOTE: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
The SantaLand Diaries (1992 essay and 1996 play): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5066175 (1992 NPR reading by David Sedaris), http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=2687 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/455 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SantaLand_Diaries (Wikipedia).
The Script (excerpts): http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
David Sedaris (author and playwright): http://www.barclayagency.com/sedaris.html (official bio courtesy the Barclay Agency), http://www.npr.org/programs/specials/lists/sedaris/ (National Public Radio bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/4863 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1358380/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Sedaris (Wikipedia).
Joe Mantello (original Off-Broadway director and adapter): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/joe-mantello-15538 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/812 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0544079/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Mantello (Wikipedia).
Jesse R. Gephart (actor): http://www.abouttheartists.com/artists/394495-jesse-gephart (AboutTheArtists resume), https://raleighlittletheatre.org/people/jesse-r-gephart/ (Raleigh Little Theatre bio), and http://facebook.com/jrgephart (Facebook page).
Katy Koop is a writer, comedic actor, and stage manager based in Cary, NC. As a freelance writer, her work has been published by Later, Femsplain, and Hello Giggles. When she’s not writing or involved in a local production, she’s tweeting under the handle @katykooped. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.