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19 Nov 2016

An Elf's Plight: Desert Rose Brings David Sedaris' 'Santaland Diaries' to Life

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Chris Clonts in Desert Rose's The Santaland Diaries. Chris Clonts in Desert Rose's The Santaland Diaries.

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and I was hopeful as I settled into my seat at the Desert Rose Playhouse on opening night of The Santaland Diaries.

I wanted to like it—and indeed, I did. However, I wish I’d liked it a little bit more.

David Sedaris first presented his essay about working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s on National Public Radio in 1992. The piece was adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello in 1996, and the one-man show debuted at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in November that year.

The play, which runs not quite 90 minutes with no intermission, details Sedaris’ trials and tribulations as he first interviews for—and then lands—a position at Santaland as an assistant to the big man in red. 

The elf selection process has 30-something out-of-work actor David (played by Chris Clonts) on edge: “If you can’t even find work as an elf, that’s when you KNOW you’re a failure.” Luckily, he makes it through, and chooses “Crumpet” as his elf name.

Crumpet lets us in on the daily grind of elf training, and introduces us to some of his colorful co-workers—including the Santa who never breaks character, insisting that he really does live at the North Pole. We also learn that the really bitter elves include people like former ad executives who were hit by the recession and “never saw a velvet costume in their futures.”

Life as an elf is rarely glamorous. Duties include wiping up the vomit of nervous children and trying to explain to the little ones why Mr. Claus sometimes accidentally spits on them while promising to bring shiny new toys on Christmas morning.

Then there is the sea of humanity lined up for a chance to spend a few moments with Santa: “I could not tell where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began.” Crumpet laments that dealing with difficult parents is also part of an elf’s job description—including some parents who demand a Santa of a particular race. Then there was the time a mother asked for help getting her misbehaving son under control. All she wants is for Crumpet to echo her warning that if the boy does not shape up, Santa will bring him coal for Christmas. Alas, the elf goes a bit overboard, terrifying the child by telling him Santa will actually come to his house and steal everything.

Alone on the stage for the entire play, Chris Clonts does an admirable job as David/Crumpet. One-person shows are not easy; for starters, there are no other actors onstage to save you if you forget your lines. Clonts fell victim to this early on during the opening-night performance, and stage manager Steve Fisher had to prompt him from the sound booth. First-night jitters aside, Clonts has some very nice moments, including a fabulous Billie Holiday-esque version of “Away in a Manger.”

Charisma, confidence and good pacing are vital when a single actor must carry an entire show, and I’d like to see Clonts ratchet up the latter two items just a bit. There were times when he seemed somewhat tentative—again, that may just be a case of opening-night jitters. Though the brief blackouts between vignettes, accompanied by upbeat holiday music, were effective, a couple of them felt too long.

The festive set, designed by director Jim Strait, is superb. Santa’s “throne” is dead center. Large Christmas packages wrapped in shiny red and green abound; a reindeer and columns adorned with tinsel add the perfect finishing touches. The adorably tacky elf costume created by Robbie Wayne is terrific as well. Kudos go to Phil Murphy for his lighting, and Steve Fisher for both stage direction and sound.

Strait elicits a good performance from Clonts, but I think there’s some untapped potential there. A faster pace, a slightly stronger entrance and maybe even some ad-libbing or bantering with the audience here and there would enhance the evening.

Get yourself in the holiday spirit by going to see Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Santaland Diaries. It’s fun, entertaining and sometimes touching, even if the opening-night show left me wanting just a little but more.

The Santaland Diaries is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, go to www.desertroseplayhouse.org or call 760-202-3000.

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