The Santaland Diaries
Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse, 7312 W. Green Lake Ave. N., 524-1300, seattlepublictheater.org. $15–$29. Runs Thurs.–Sun. plus Dec. 23 & 24. Ends Dec. 24.
Some iconic stage performances are impossible for actors to overcome. Holiday productions can be particularly cruel in this regard. Revisited again and again, year after year, yuletide perennials tend to sear a particular portrayal into our consciousness. Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey, Peter Billingsley is Ralphie Parker, Will Ferrell is Buddy the Elf. The most difficult role to repeat in the modern Christmas canon, though, has got to be David Sedaris in his The Santaland Diaries. Originally a short story, Santaland was made famous by the author’s wry radio recitation, first aired in 1992 and replayed seemingly every year on NPR, like a modern It’s a Wonderful Life.
What makes Santaland so difficult to stage is the remove with which Sedaris tells his story, recalling how he, a struggling artist in New York, worked as an elf at Macy’s. It’s a fish-out-of-water tale, owing much of its humor to Sedaris’ clear disgust at his self-inflicted predicament. It’s difficult to picture the humorist as a goofy elf; but when you do, laughs follow. The striped tights just don’t fit.
Achieving that dissonance is a herculean task for Patrick Lennon, who dons the striped tights and green smock for the hour-long monologue. Taken on its own, Lennon’s performance is a pleasure. He carries the one-man show with a mix of whimsy and dread, never missing a beat or a berating. The production, directed by Kelly Kitchens, stays true to its sardonic source material, with Lennon endlessly mocking his customers and co-workers. Lennon is good at acting miserable, but also expert at exuberance when dashing about the set and delivering Sedaris’ cynical lines with panache. But Lennon’s Crumpet isn’t Sedaris’ Crumpet. Some bits from the original fall flat here, like Sedaris’ famously dead-on impression of Billie Holiday singing “Away in a Manger,” which crumbles in Lennon’s hands. Yet others hit with unexpected humor in Lennon’s childlike telling; this Crumpet really gets to show his mischievous side when impersonating his customers.
Those accustomed to Sedaris’ patented irony might think Lennon is doing it all wrong. But if you can set aside the NPR reruns and grant him some artistic license, this Santaland will leave you delighted.