David Sedaris first read his essay, “Santaland Diaries,” on NPR in 1992. Today, the real-life account of Sedaris’ employment as Crumpet the Elf in a Macy’s Department Store is an irreverent holiday classic, still read by Sedaris on NPR every year. And you can see Crumpet the Elf recount his stint with Santa at Woolfe Street this Thursday and Friday, just in time for the freakin’ holidays.
Played by Robbie Thomas, Crumpet the Elf is a retail employee cracking under Christmas pressure. “Everyone can kinda relate,” says Thomas of the show. “As long as you’ve worked any kind of retail job or F&B job over the holidays, you know what it’s like.”
For those unfamiliar with Sedaris’ work, the humorist, author, and radio contributor is best known for his wry, dry sense of humor. It was his NPR reading of “Santaland Diaries” that gained him national recognition. If you’ve heard Sedaris before, you’d remember. An excerpt from “Santaland” reads like this:
“I told the interviewers that I wanted to be an elf because it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard of. I figured that, for once in my life, I would be completely honest and see how far it got me. I failed the drug test. My urine had roaches and stems floating in it, but still they hired me, and honesty had nothing to do with it. They hired me because I’m short. Everyone they hired is short. I am one of the taller elves.”
“I think the first time I read it was in high school,” says Thomas of “Santaland.” “It’s not politically correct. There’s nothing horribly vulgar, but he doesn’t hold back, and the beauty is, he doesn’t have to. These are his musings.”
In 1996 Joe Mantello adapted Sedaris’ essay for the stage as a one-man, one-act play. “To me, it’s the perfect amount of theater,” says Thomas. At just over an hour, the play is performed on Woolfe Street’s sidestage, a smaller space located in the back of Woolfe Street Playhouse, with a stage bedecked in red and gold fabric. The set also includes the requisite Christmas tree, a workbench for Crumpet (he is an elf after all), and a big chair placed in the middle of the stage, from which Crumpet can wax poetic about his time at Santaland. Like this excerpt:
“22,000 people came to see Santa today, and not all of them were well-behaved. Today I witnessed fistfights and vomiting and magnificent tantrums. Once the line gets long, we break it into four different lines, because anyone in their right mind would leave if they knew it would take over two hours to see Santa. Two hours. You could see a movie in two hours. Standing in a two-hour line makes people worry that they’re not living in a democratic nation.”
“Nobody comes out unscathed,” says Thomas. “Even Sedaris himself says, ‘I’m not a good person, I’ve never even been mistaken for a good person.’ He’s not gonna hold back on anybody, which can be refreshing. For an hour, watching someone do that is a breath of fresh air.” And while Thomas says he loves his feel-good holiday plays as much as the next guy, he knows that this time of year can call for a good belly laugh or two.
“This is kind of when you’re tired of seeing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for the fifth time. This is the palate cleanser to bring you back to reality,” he says. Thomas has directed Santaland Diaries in the past and he knows, perhaps better than anyone, how difficult a one-man play can be. If you’re not bringing your A-game, then who’s got your back? “You have to know the story. You have to make the story your own — if you’re not looking at it as your experience, you get completely lost,” says Thomas. There is one source of guiding light, though.
“You have to have the audience with you,” he says. “They’re your lifeline. It definitely is a different show every night. You gotta feel ’em out. You may be in the driver’s seat, but they’re telling you where to go — and you gotta go there with them.”