'The Santaland Diaries': Still funny

Joe Leary as Crumpet the Elf in The Santaland Diaries.
Joe Leary as Crumpet the Elf in The Santaland Diaries.
Photo by Tony Nelson
Frank Theatre's The Santaland Diaries opens without any real fanfare. The lights dim a bit and actor Joe Leary walks onstage dressed in street clothes. It's the transformation that takes place in the 70 minutes that follow that is the star of the show.

Based on David Sedaris's famous essay on working as an elf at Macy's Santaland in New York City, the stage version is often a scattershot trip into a Christmas past. Joe Mantello's script doesn't necessarily provide a clear journey for our character, with recollections seemingly gathered together without thought to the actual shape of the piece.

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Despite these disadvantages, the stage show -- Frank's third foray -- is tremendously fun, with lots of sharp (even brutal) humor and a core that can get to the most jaded of viewers. After all, if Sedaris can find a bit of authentic Christmas cheer at Macy's, then certainly we can all find it somewhere.

The story is fairly simple. After arriving in New York City, Sedaris applies for -- and gets -- a job as an elf for Santaland. There, they are employed to usher the children (along with parents, guardians, and other interested adults) through a maze-like wonderland, the trip ending on Santa's lap (with attempts to sell the parents photos of the great meeting).

Already well versed as an outsider, Sedaris -- or Crumpet -- finds he doesn't really fit in amid all the forced cheer, while the absurdities of his day-to-day duties mount up. All of this gives a temporary job that likely lasted just a few weeks an epic, life-changing vibe.

Leary moves easily into the character (having done it twice before certainly helps), as comfortable in the mad elf costume as he is in the street clothes he wears at the beginning. He is able to take the diffuse pieces of the script and tie them all together, mainly through his charm as a performer, and the ability to get beyond the humor into the core of what's happening onstage.

Leary also brings the rest of the characters to life, from the far-too-peppy brother and sister elves to the cavalcade of Santas that man the most important part of the journey. Leary's fluid use of voice and body help the audience forget that there is only one actor onstage (an essential ingredient for many one-person shows to work).

The staging by Wendy Knox is equally adept, while set designer Steve Rohde gives us work that fills the space at the Southern without overwhelming Leary or the piece.

The Santaland Diaries
Through Dec. 23
Southern Theater
1420 Washington Ave.
S., Minneapolis
For tickets and information, call 612.724.3760 or visit online.

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