Fort Worth — It can be hard to develop new holiday traditions as an adult. One tends to stick with the tried and true from childhood—the hot chocolate, the carols, the George C. Scott A Christmas Carol every Christmas Eve (wait—just me?). But a new tradition that I’ve adopted wholeheartedly within the last decade or so is giving a yearly listen to writer David Sedaris’ sardonic essay “The Santaland Diaries,” documenting his experiences over two seasons as a Christmas elf named Crumpet at Macy’s Santaland in New York City. Originally produced as a segment for NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992, the piece catapulted Sedaris into the national consciousness, and was eventually adapted for the stage by actor/director Joe Montello in 1996, and now The Santaland Diaries has found its way to Casa Mañana’s sleek, sophisticated Reid Cabaret Theater. Local critical darling Zak Reynolds electrifies as the boozy, sharp-tongued narrator of a trip into Christmas hell, in a production that’s certainly not for kiddies (in the best possible way).
Reynolds acts as an avatar for Sedaris, who as a fresh-faced 33-year-old new to the Big Apple, found himself broke and surprisingly not starring on a soap opera three weeks in. So, with an empty bank account and Sallie Mae breathing down his neck, Sedaris found himself applying for a job as an elf (a full-time elf, not a part-time elf). Reborn as Crumpet the Elf, Sedaris goes through the surprisingly rigorous training process before donning his spangly hat, striped socks, and pointy slippers to brave the snowdrifts and harried shoppers of Santaland. Between elves who refuse to wear panties, more than one Santa going a little too Method, and the occasional fistfights between overwrought parents, Crumpet has his work cut out for him as the store counts down to the big day. Archly wicked and wickedly arch, Sedaris never lets a spoonful of sugar pass the audience’s lips without a little drop of acid, and it’s a delight for those who, yes, of course, love Christmas, but who’ve maybe already had it with the tinsel and the eggnog, already.
Enthroned on a cozy armchair and surrounded by festive cheer, a green-felt-clad Reynolds in converted Converse dishes the dirt on his adventures as Crumpet with a more explosive style than Sedaris’ trademark deadpan—and a bottle of Jameson in his hand. It’s an adjustment: Crumpet with the volume turned way, way up, which is hardly surprising considering the different challenges of radio versus the stage. But he evokes the same sense of catty camaraderie, that sense memory of listening to your funniest, meanest friend pop off. He’s engaging at every turn, even through the scene transitions, which usually involve either a PA announcement by a “Macy’s clerk” who grows more manic by the day, or a thematically apropos musical snippet (a clever way of moving through the piece and showing the passage of time).
A striking physical presence—tall and slim, with a slinky grace and piercing blue eyes behind thick black-rimmed glasses—Reynolds moves easily throughout the entire room, wending his way through the tables and giving the show a sense of movement and space; an impressive feat in such an intimate venue. But then, that should come as no shock to those familiar with Reynolds’ work. Not only is he a frequent visitor to Casa Mañana’s mainstage and youth productions (as well as being the grandson of longtime Casa Mañana General Manager Mel Dacus), he’s made his mark on stages all over the Metroplex, especially memorable this year in Circle Theatre’s Every Brilliant Thing. He’s an arresting presence, giving just enough weight to Sedaris’ rare sincere moments to let them land before puncturing the sweetness deftly. He even manages to navigate some of the script’s less palatable moments; a discussion of some intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals visiting Santa uses language that was certainly prevalent in the ’90s, but considering the script’s been updated to include mentions of using iPads, might be due for some revision.
Like a shot of vodka after one too many hot chocolates, The Santaland Diaries will clear your metaphorical sinuses and leave you braced to deal with the madness of this wonderful, terrible time of year. Pull up a chair, order a cocktail (I recommend Maker’s on the rocks, but your mileage may vary), and sit back and enjoy a refreshing interpretation of a new holiday classic.