For any December theatergoer who’s ever said, “Not another Christmas Carol!”, The Blank Theatre offers the perfect holiday solution—Nicholas Brendon in David Sedaris’s The SantaLand Diaries, the true story of Sedaris’s humiliating but hilarious-in-retrospect stint as a Christmas elf at New York City Macy’s “SantaLand.”


Sedaris, the best-selling, Grammy Award-nominated humorist made his first big splash reading The SantaLand Diaries on NPR in essay form back in 1992.  Joe Mantello’s stage adaptation debuted in New York four years later and now provides sixty-five laugh-packed minutes of holiday stage entertainment at The Blank, starring Buffy’s Xander and directed by StageSceneLA’s 2008-9 Director Of The Year (Drama) Michael Matthews, proving himself as adept at comedy as he is with the serious stuff.

In fact, if ever a show could be called a “director’s production,” it’s The SantaLand Diaries. That’s not to discount Brendon’s infectiously funny and often quite brilliant performance. It’s simply that a glance at the published version of the script looks not a bit like a play. (It is twenty-seven pages of dialog without a single stage direction.)  Merely memorizing all those thousands of words is a task that would daunt most any actor, but once committed to memory, then what? How to turn an hour or so of standup into an honest-to-goodness play?  

The answer of course is to hire a director like Matthews, whose imaginative vision (and dream design team) make The SantaLand Diaries come vividly to life, particularly with Brendon’s endearingly quirky performance center stage.


Correction.  Make that everywhere on stage. Scenic designer Kurt Boetcher has surrounded the acting area with Christmas packages of all sizes, keeping Brendon in constant motion as he sits/stands on/behind/in front of just about every one of them, with Timothy Swiss’s sensational lighting design fast on the actor’s heels. My guess is that there have been some fairly static productions of The SantaLand Diaries over the past thirteen years.  Matthews’ SantaLand is notone of them.

Brendon plays “David” like an eager and often quite adorable seven-year-old in a thirtysomething body, starting his journey to SantaLand in costume designer Michael Mullen’s schlumpy, baggy long-sleeved t-shirt, ratty jeans, and unkempt hair.  “I am a thirty-three-year-old man applying for a job as an elf,” Brendon tells us somewhat ashamedly, but as he goes on to say, “It could be worse.”  He could be applying to be one of those people “dressed as objects and handing out leaflets” on the streets.

Being a SantaLand elf was hardly what David had in mind when he arrived in New York three weeks earlier.  In his dreams, he had expected to go straight from Penn Station to the office of One Life To Live where he’d be toasted by none other than Victoria Buchanan, “the show’s greatest star,” and welcomed as “the newest member of our television family.” Reality does not quite match up to David’s fantasy.


The first thing any prospective Macy’s Elf worth his or her salt must do is pick an Elf name.  David, rather than settling for something ordinary like Jingle or Frosty, opts for the far edgier Crumpet, and starts out his elf life as a waving “Magic Window Elf.” That’s the one who gets to point out Santa through a “magic window” as the kiddies stand in line to get their photo taken with Mr. Claus.  Other elf types include Entrance Elf, Water Cooler Elf, Cash Register Elf, Emergency Exit Elf—you get the picture.

As Brendon figuratively turns the pages in The SantaLand Diaries, he creates one after another of the outrageous characters who people David’s elfin adventures.  There’s the Valley Girl waitress who punctuates every phrase and sentence with a question mark. There’s David’s gravely-voiced lady boss who tells the female elves that she has “scraped enough blood out from the crotches of elf knickers to last me the rest of my life. And don’t tell me ‘I don’t wear underpants. I’m a dancer.’”  Brendon is very funny as a “multimedia” dad, “bent over with equipment, relentless in his quest for documentation” of his children’s visit with Santa. He’s also a mother-from-hell who slaps her sobbing daughter, yelling, “Goddamn it, Rachel, get on that man’s lap and smile or I’ll give you something to cry about.”  Equally funny is the customer who threatens to get David fired, and his fantasy response to her, “I’m going to have you killed!”

Brendon/David/Crumpet adroitly assumes various distinctive vocal and physical personas as he describes his fellow elves:  Gingersnap, so stupid that she asks a manager if she can work as an elf year-round; Flakey, who tells the children “I’m not a real elf, I’m an artist”; The Walrus, who acts as though SantaLand were a single’s bar (cue disco ball and The BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive”); and Sleighbell, who once had a bit part as a flamenco dancer on David’s favorite soap (you can guess which one). Finally there’s Snowball, and though Brendon’s “David’ never comes across anything close to straight, it isn’t till we hear about the “overall cutest elf” whose flirty “I’d followyou to Santa’s house any day, Crumpet” makes David dizzy with excitement, that we get confirmation of his sexual orientation. 

David also gives us the 411 on the store’s various Santas, including Santa Howard, Santa Doug, and the worst Santa of all, Santa Santa, who forces David to sing “Away In A Manger” for the children, prompting a reluctant Crumpet to warble it a la Billie Holiday (an imitation which Brendon nails). Lastly, there’s the unnamed, unknown, and nicest Santa of all, the one who makes all the children and parents happy and makes David (a self-confessed “not a good person”) “good by association.”

It took me a while to get used to Brendon’s somewhat over-the-top David, but he won me over with the sheer intensity of his performance, the absolute commitment of his total-body acting, and of course all those supporting characters he creates so vividly.

David’s New York adventure is punctuated by the sounds of Manhattan traffic, horns, and pile drivers, and his OLTL fantasy is underscored by appropriately soapy music, the first two of Warren Davis’ countless clever sound design choices throughout the evening.  “Run Run Rudolph” accompanies David as he changes into his elf costume (a must-be-seen-to-be-believed Mullen design), and when Crumpet decides to tell the children that if they look through the window, they can see Cher (he’s supposed to say Santa), it’s a cue for (guess what?) Cher’s Believe. Then there’s the horror movie music and background screams which accompany David’s fantasy of an alternate universe called SatanLand ruled by none other than the devil himself.

Swiss’s colorful lighting design is just what one would expect from this Matthews team regular.  At times Swiss illuminates the stage with a golden glow.  At other times, i.e. whenever an announcement blares scarily out over the Macy’s loudspeaker system, he shines a scarily harsh white spotlight on an intimidated David. Naturally SatanLand is lit in a devilishly satanic red.

The Blank’s The SantaLand Diaries is must-see theater for any actor or director thinking of putting on a solo performance production.  It’s also a great way to spend an hour and change on a December evening or afternoon. The entire initially scheduled run sold out before the production even opened, so additional Wednesday and Sunday performances have been added, but with reviews and word-of-mouth likely to be glowing, some hasty reservation-making is of the essence. SantaLand may have been hell for David Sedaris to visit, but it’s one heck of a fun place for a holiday season theater audience to be.

The Blank 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 3, 2009
                                                                                       Photos: Rick Baumgartner

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