Theatre Review: Santaland Diaries @ The Theater Building through 1/3/09

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“I’m not Christian so I don’t give a flying fruit loop about Christmas, but I am excited about that Mariah Carey holiday song on the radio,” prefaces actor Mitchell Fain, mixing a dry martini and toasting a sold-out crowd at the start of Santaland Diaries, the one-man show that shakes and stirs the happy snowglobe world of Christmas with the less-than-jolly adventures of Crumpet The Elf, running til January 3, 2009 at Theatre Building Chicago, Thursdays through Sundays.

Santaland Diaries is the work of humorist David Sedaris, the comic essay that single-handedly put the then-School Of The Art Institute Of Chicago student on the map after it debuted on NPR in the early ‘90s. The story meets under the mistletoe with commentary on Christmas capitalism and woes of unglamorous work strife as it tells the true tale of Sedaris’ employment as an elf in the Santaland display at Macy’s. It’s a world that places him amongst a cast of out-of-work actor coworkers, schizophrenic Santas and a varied waiting line of obnoxious children and parents that are asking for their lump of coal.

The play that followed, which has been repeated on national stages for the past decade, has become as much of a holiday tradition as productions of A Christmas Carol or watching the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story on TBS. Chicago performances of the show, in particular, sell out year after year.

Although many a Chicago actor has taken on the daunting task of memorizing the engrossing monologue, Fain has proved once again to be the best in the role in his second year with the production. Though he reminds the audience that he is, in fact, not David Sedaris, it can be hard to separate the two with similarities in stature, in awkwardly charming looks and in voice when reciting line after line of prose.

But Fain's biggest success is his ability to engage the audience, an essential ingredient when there’s only one character and one set of props to look at for 90 minutes. Fain breaks the fourth wall and invites interactive participation and relevance with clever asides about Lincoln Park trixies and his own take on the characters we never see like the precocious Gingersnap, the bitter Santa Howard, and little tantrum-throwing Riley. It’s a risk that makes the story even more impressive because it lets you feel that you are in on the joke, as if Sedaris himself is telling it to you as an old friend who is catching up with you across the Christmas dinner table.

Although, as a writer, Sedaris has often voiced his concerns about his longer pieces and their ability to lose focus, our attention is always with the production and with Fain-- een in the end, as the Christmas rush gets the best of the play as it races through 12, 9, 7, 3 days before doomsday, when all that’s left is the slush of the winter letdown after all the pre-holiday excitement that leaves you hanging on for this time next year.

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