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Stage show chronicles elf’s true tribulations

Lake City Playhouse stages “SantaLand Diaries” starting Friday.
Lake City Playhouse stages “SantaLand Diaries” starting Friday.

Sedaris comedy takes on retail holiday world

In December 1992, humorist David Sedaris made his debut on National Public Radio reading an essay titled “SantaLand Diaries,” a witty, acerbic account of the author’s experiences working as an elf in Macy’s SantaLand in New York City. The appearance jump-started Sedaris’ career – he has since become a best-selling author, with collections including “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day” – and NPR re-airs “SantaLand Diaries” every holiday season.

Four years after its radio debut, “Diaries” was adapted into a one-man stage show by Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello. Coeur d’Alene’s Lake City Playhouse opens its version of the show Friday night, directed by Heather Bingman and starring Doug Dawson as the disgruntled department store elf known as Crumpet.

“It’s not your traditional Christmas show, and for me that’s very appealing,” Bingman said. “Anybody that has one of those families that’s not the ideal family for the holidays, anybody who’s worked retail during the holidays – they’re going to relate to this very well.”

Over the course of the one-act play, Crumpet describes the bizarre working conditions of SantaLand: The comprehensive training sessions, complete with an intimidating PSA about the dangers of shoplifting; his fellow elves, many of whom are out-of-work soap opera actors; the startling variety of elf roles, such as Pointer Elf, Emergency Exit Elf and Magic Window Elf; and the various Santas he has to work with, including one guy who applies a Method approach to playing St. Nick and refuses to break character.

And then there are the shoppers, who turn Crumpet’s life into a waking nightmare. There are the confused foreigners who wander through the line, a couple of drunken families who ask Santa for some inappropriate gifts, and a few celebrities trying to get through SantaLand without being recognized. But it’s the parents, the ones who are rude to the Macy’s employees and are dragging their disinterested children along to see Santa, who receive most of Sedaris’ derision.

“SantaLand Diaries” is essentially a long monologue delivered to the audience, but Bingman says that she made sure to bring some variety to the staging. “The show has a feeling of a beginning, a middle, an end – some continuity to it, rather just being one person sitting in the center of the stage talking at you,” she said. “He walks around the stage, he indicates where things might be. And he’s on the stage the entire time; he never exits.”

Although Sedaris’ writing drips with sarcasm and occasional contempt, Bingman says that there is a positive message behind “SantaLand Diaries,” one that’s particularly fitting for this time of year.

“We’ve lost the genuine idea of what the holidays are about,” Bingman said. Sedaris “is constantly talking about people who are yelling at these holiday workers, who are behaving poorly, who are not treating their kids right. They’ve forgotten about what the meaning of the holidays is – it’s to be with your family and enjoy yourself and be grateful for what you have.”

On top of that, there’s Sedaris’ distinctive, off-kilter sense of humor, which not only serves as an antidote to bland holiday cheeriness but will also speak best to a particular cross section of the audience.

“If you’ve ever been in the working class with a regular family, where half of you want to kill each other by the time the day is over, and then you’ve got to get up and go to work the day after Christmas to handle all the returns – oh, you’re going to love it,” Bingman said.