Review: 'The Santaland Diaries'

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley adapts David Sedaris' uproarious holiday essay
Local actor Max Tachis shines in the TheatreWorks stage adaptation of David Sedaris' 'Santaland Diaries.' Photo by Kevin Berne

Spike your eggnog, pretend to like your aunts, uncles and cousins, and fight your way through the savages at the mall to get that last, overpriced gift. It's Christmastime and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley keeps these dueling holiday sentiments in mind with their latest production—a stage adaptation of David Sedaris' cautionary holiday tale, "Santaland Diaries."

One of Sedaris' first widely recognized works, it is both a meditation on being young and without direction, as well as an incredulous take on the wild, surreal clash of Christmas and capitalism. The essay debuted on NPR's Morning Edition in 1992 and was later published in the collection Barrel Fever in 1994. NPR rebroadcasts the reading every year, making it a public radio holiday tradition.

The set for TheatreWorks' one-man rendition is sparse. It is centered around an ornate Santa chair, flanked on the right by a fully-stocked alcohol cart. Behind the chair is a phalanx of fully lit Christmas trees. Above, crown molding with Christmas-y tendrils frame the stage. The small platform that supports the chair leads down into the front row of theater seats through gingerbread-styled steps.

Even before the show opens, the play's star, Max Tachis, is on stage, interacting with the audience. Using the conceit of technical difficulties, Tachis confers with the stage's crew through his microphone. Then he launches into a rap to point out the emergency exits and other features of the production.

After exiting the stage, he returns almost immediately, wearing a winter coat, sipping coffee and looking for jobs in the classified section of the newspaper. He picks a job as an elf in the Santa display at the Macy's department store in New York City, where he soon learns what kind of beautiful mistake he's made. Working under the festive name of Crumpet, the narrator outlines his day to day as an assistant to Kris Kringle, dealing with everything from creeps to overbearing mothers in hilarious, horrifying and above all, absurd detail.

As a one-man show, The Santaland Diaries requires some heavy lifting. Luckily, is more than up to the task. From the get-go, Tachis plays Crumpet with dexterity—oscillating between sardonicism and idealism. But as the show progresses, each warring side of his brain begins to blend into a Tasmanian devil of emotion and frustration.

Tachis pulls it off without a hitch. As Crumpet, he is funny and immediately likable, swimming through each anecdote with a bitter charisma that coats the material in equal parts alienation, bitterness and holiday spirit. It's no easy feat, but Tachis also transitions between different voices, dialects and colloquialisms filling out Crumpet's adventure with context.

While the audience interaction felt out of place at the show's commencement, Tachis' tendency throughout the show to involve the audience by giving a member an empty beer or an unwanted flyer, brings the whole crowd closer into Crumpet's experience.

There were some hiccups. The loose, goofy energy that carried the show from the outset started to falter in the middle, and the sudden inclusion of a puppet to provide some contrasting perspective (and to take some work off Tachis' back) felt a little forced. But there were moments where the puppet was used successfully to reinforce Crumpet's feelings and perspective. The doll also served to break up the uniformity of the show.

Though mostly tame, Sedaris' material pulls no punches—poking fun at different groups, ethnicities and subcultures with biting wittiness. These moments feel much more tense in the theater today than they must have felt when Sedaris first read his "Santaland Diaries" on the air.

While the show deals with sensitive issues—race, homosexuality, domestic violence, abuse and economic hardship—it approaches them in ways that don't feel didactic or overly serious. Instead The Santaland Diaries blends these themes into a potent cocktail that is paradoxically a bleak yet merry reflection on Christmas in America.

The Santaland Diaries
Dec. 5-23rd
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

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