The Santaland Diaries offers diminishing returns | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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The Santaland Diaries offers diminishing returns

Steven Strafford's Crumpet is delightful, but the material feels dated.

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In the season opener of Abby McEnany's new Showtime series, Work in Progress, McEnany runs into Julia Sweeney in a bar and recalls how Sweeney's gender-ambiguous Pat character on Saturday Night Live made her life hell. Watching The Santaland Diaries—the stage show created by Joe Mantello out of David Sedaris's autobiographical essay that first aired on NPR in 1992—also reminds us that not all comedy from that decade ages equally well.

This year at the Goodman, Steven Strafford steps into the oversized curvy shoes of Crumpet, the name Sedaris gave himself as one of the elves at Macy's Santaland in New York. Anyone who has worked retail or retail-adjacent during the holidays will certainly appreciate the dyspepsia seasonal employment brings. It's like getting psychic coal in your stocking, but you know you've done nothing wrong other than try to pay the damn rent. Yet there is also a definite sense of punching down in the show that bugs me more every time I see it. Changing the word "retarded" to "leotarded" to describe some Santaland visitors not only makes no sense—it just makes the offhand offensiveness of the original locution that much clearer. In short, this script could use a complete overhaul. But like so many versions of A Christmas Carol, the attitude seems to be, if it packs 'em in, why bother?

Those caveats aside, though, Steve Scott's staging and Strafford's performance at the Goodman have noteworthy moments. Strafford, known for his own solo memoir Methtacular!, is particularly fine at nailing the combination of self-loathing and whimsy that makes up his elfin emotional survival kit, and Kevin Depinet's deliberately garish set reminds us that the aggressive demands for ho-ho-happiness this time of year can feel like an assault on the senses.  v

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