The Santaland Diaries enchants Sedaris fans and Scrooges alike

December 11th, 2015

Creative Loafing’s review of our Holiday Tradition

The Santaland Diaries enchants Sedaris fans and Scrooges alike

Posted By on Wed, Nov 25, 2015 at 10:13 AM

REIGN IN: (From left) LaLa Cochran, Harold M. Leaver, and Enoch King 'sleigh' in The Santaland Diaries. - COURTESY HORIZON THEATRE COMPANY

  • REIGN IN: (From left) LaLa Cochran, Harold M. Leaver, and Enoch King ‘sleigh’ in The Santaland Diaries.

Expectations can weigh heavy on experiences. It isn’t particularly fair, but it often applies when approaching art. So was my struggle when ascending the Horizon Theatre Company’s lavender stairs to catch a showing of David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries. The show is based on his essay of the same name, chronicling a seasonal gig as a Macy department store elf called Crumpet. It’s an essay I’ve known and loved since my teen years from a writer I’ve known and loved just as long. I did my best to settle into a back row, plastic cup of wine in hand, with as few expectations as possible.My sister and I, regardless of sharing a zodiac sign, grew up and continue to be very different people. We let those differences cancel each other out, allowing respective prowesses fill in the others’ cultural cracks. Most holidays I gifted her music and she gave me books. In high school, I peeled pages from our local daily off the David Sedaris compilation, Me Talk Pretty One Day. “He’s got a funny way of telling stories,” she said. “Ones that might otherwise be boring.” I took zero pause before consuming the entirety of his published works. It kickstarted a worship transcending into college when I cobbled together meager paychecks from the record store to hear him read at the posh Florida Theatre. He spoke with ringing clarity and ease, cruising through personal narratives just as I’d heard him do countless times before on public radio.

I first encountered his “The Santaland Diaries” essay in the seasonal collection Holidays on Ice(1997) after the aforementioned gifting. Deep into my first job as a burrito shop counter girl, I knew the complex feelings that come with working a service industry job. But that was at 17. Later on, as an adult, I’d be subjected to a string of humiliating gigs — yes, often involving uniforms — and only then would I actually get the struggle Sedaris details with charming hindsight.

In its 17th iteration, Horizon’s spin on The Santaland Diaries is presented with the same ringing clarity Sedaris likely intended. Harold M. Leaver takes on the role of Crumpet, also for the 17th time. Leaver breathes animated life into Crumpet, a disgruntled, hypersexual writer desperate for a buck while living in New York City. I’ve lived this reality — it’s dark — however, like Sedaris, Leaver’s Crumpet takes crummy circumstance with winking stride. After all, it’s a job — a fact Crumpet trumpets throughout the 90-minute work. It’s a cadence many of us are familiar with.

FLAMENCO CAROLS: Cochran and Leaver nail on-stage harmony. - COURTESY HORIZON THEATRE COMPANY

  • FLAMENCO CAROLS: Cochran and Leaver nail on-stage harmony.

LaLa Cochran (2014’s Suzi Bass award recipient for Best Featured Actress, Theatrical Outfit’s Best of Enemies) and Enoch King (Santaland vet, Metrostage’s Uprising) act as at least 30 characters each, rounding out the main trio taking stage for the production. Together Leaver, Cochran, and King work as a hilarious cocktail, serving up a dose of seasonal spirit so potent even the most cynical Scrooge could get tipsy. The play is stuffed with vignettes of Crumpet’s holiday hell, sprinkled with plenty of cameos from cartoony customers who may come off as too real to anyone who’s ever worked retail. There’s music, including a few snippets of Crumpet himself performing, but make no mistake — Santaland is not a musical, thankfully. It’s more like a medley, perfecting the balance between inner monologue, people-watching epiphanies, and wisecracks.Cochran channels intense The State-era Kerri Kenney vibes while taking on roles like a foul-mouthed elf manager, peak Vegas Cher, a vodka-soaked soap star, and a scrapbooking racist. Her comedic timing and easy sleuthing through potentially touchy characters (seriously? A scrapbooking racist) make her performance especially a treat.

SNOWBALLIN': Leaver and King do killer crowd work. - COURTESY HORIZON THEATRE COMPANY

  • SNOWBALLIN’: Leaver and King do killer crowd work.

Leaver and King also do great work, especially in the tricky territory of crowd participation. As a rule, I regard crowd participation the same way I do skateboarding: it looks fine from far away and I don’t mind it, as long as it’s not me doing it. The way Santaland and these two specifically pluck folks from the audience helps personalize the performance and make it a more authentic experience. (Poor Chris. Those pink cheeks sure looked bona fide.)

Despite “Santaland’s” 22-year-old roots, director Jeff Adler does a bang-up job keeping the script and performance current. Snapchat jokes aren’t forced, instead, references to iPhone 6s and Cecil the lion come up infrequently and unforced. The modernization act as sugar coating to help viewers swallow other big pills that come up in grim examples of xenophobia, racism, and sexism.

Ultimately, Horizon’s The Santaland Diaries does what most holiday plays hope to do: conjure more than a few jolly laughs from bah humbug viewer — Sedaris fan or not. And frankly, that alone is pretty damn magical.

The Santaland Diaries continues at Horizon Theatre Company through December 31.

Reposted from: Creative Loafing