Joe Leary stars in “The Santaland Diaries” at Hennepin Stages
First, a clarification: what follows is a compilation of reviews for the show “The Santaland Diaries” produced by Frank Theatre, on stage at Hennepin Stages, starring Joe Leary. Do not confuse these for reviews of “The Santaland Diaries” produced by Theatre Limina, on stage at Bryant Lake Bowl. Both are based on the series of monologues writer David Sedaris recorded for National Public Radio, but one is produced as a one-man-show while the other is a series of skits performed by a cast and a live stage band.
This lively production, under the direction of Wendy Knox, has a wonderfully cartoon-like look, complete with Steve Rohde’s recreation of Santaland and Kathy Kohl’s gaudy elf costume, including curly-toed shoes. Christmas muzak blares in the background, punctuated by announcements over a loudspeaker.
A 75-minute monologue tailored to Sedaris’ uniquely dry, deadpan delivery, “The Santaland Diaries” presents a challenging task for an actor. Joe Leary does a stellar job with the variety of characters that inhabit this play, embodying some particularly amusing Santas, over-wrought parents and freakish coworkers. At one point he recounts working with a wildly enthusiastic Santa who demands that he sing “Away in a Manger” for a child. Leary breaks into a deliciously campy Billie Holiday-style carol that ensures Santa won’t ask for an encore…. If nothing else, this show is guaranteed to make you take a closer look at that elf who’s directing your child to a department store Santa.
As time goes on, Crumpet is an increasingly less-than-happy camper, crumbling under the strain of projecting constant sunshine and with garden-variety human failings turned noxiously abrasive. But matters never turn really dark; Leary keeps his frustration focused on self-deprecation rather than lashing out, and at no time are we asked to deal with cynical ruminations on the holiday itself.
If anything, Santaland is a microcosm of humanity from the cave to the jetway: absurd, incoherent and occasionally worthy of affection.
As with Sedaris’ writing, we’re not asked to delve deep into his thoughts about himself, the world or its traditions. Instead, he simply portrays things as they are and makes the case for them being very funny.
In this show, coming in at less than an hour and a half, we have a satire that bites without drawing blood. It’s a fine piece of storytelling, delivered with assurance, and manages to send up everything in sight without bringing us down. Crumpet’s time was clearly not wasted.
Leary does an amazing job up there all by his elfin-self (I’d say f’in-self in the spirit of the performance, but that might be a bit much). That can’t be easy. His delivery is sharp, his coy interaction with the audience (a highlight being when a front row gal shrieked as he began to change from street clothes into elf clothes) was perfect with an eyebrow-raised glance, and his performance of Billie Holiday’s imagined “Away in a Manger” solo rocks. The costume is a detailed extravaganza, somewhere between the Lollipop Kids vests and a King of Hearts tux, complete with to-die-for curled-toe velvet booty shoes. And the sound quality is excellent: you can understand every word, which is good, as you do want to hear every word that Sedaris wrote. Each one is as cynical, poignant, and/or sarcastic as the next. You do not, however, want to bring the children, as some adults who sat next to me did. I’m hoping those misguided guardians get the coal they deserve this year. Geesh.
Are you going to see “The Santaland Diaries?” If you’ve already seen it, what did you think?