Although he had already appeared on The Wild Room, a Chicago-based radio show co-hosted by Ira Glass (later of This American Life), now-best-selling author David Sedaris was hardly a household name when he read from The Santaland Dairies on NPR’s Morning Edition on December 23, 1992. That big break changed everything.
A raucous, unnerving, wildly funny anti-Christmas Carol, detailing Sedaris’s dubious experiences behind the scenes of Macy’s-New York’s SantaLand during the holiday season, where Sedaris was once employed as an elf named Crumpet, The Santaland Diaries was mounted as a play, with Sedaris in the lead, in 1996. By now, it may be the country’s most-produced holiday play besides the Dickens. In its eighth year at Asheville Community Theatre, and its fifth starring Tom Chalmers, the show has evolved and is well worth the visit.
Unlike A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries hasn’t aged particularly well. Certain contemporary references have dated it in ways that have never happened to the Dickens, and it must be said that the somewhat abbreviated version presented periodically, still, on NPR is a less shaggy affair than the version adapted and originally directed for the stage by Joe Mantello. Necessarily a hodgepodge, since it’s excerpted from actual diaries, the show has no clear dramatic arc, except for the countdown toward Christmas. What really held it together was Sedaris’s lacerating, and self-lacerating, wit and observations, and the force of his overtly fey performance persona. Fortunately, as directed by Josh Batenhorst, the ACT production avoids the traps of imitating Sedaris or taking his text as canonical.
This becomes clear immediately, as the show is preceded by a smart, laugh-provoking, unusually well-done film short, A Christmas Season Show Carol, filmed by Shane Peters. In it, a Scrooge-like Chalmers-as-Crumpet returns to ACT, unhappily, to perform The Santaland Diaries yet again. After several lobby encounters (including an especially clever one with Chalmers-as-pseudo-Tiny Tim), Chalmers/Crumpet is visited in his dressing room by Josh Marley (director Batenhorst in a superb cameo) and the ghosts of Christmas Season Show past and future (the absence of the present is one of the many jokes). The ending is fitting, and leads appropriately to the play proper. The film alone repays the price of admission.
Once the main proceedings get underway, the innovations of this presentation come fully into focus. Batenhorst and Chalmers, who functions as much as a stand-up comic as an actor here, freely update references, add physical shtick and bits of business (much of it in and involving the audience), and toss in new lines and ad libs. The result is a loose-limbed, easygoing evening that honors and remakes the original. Even if you’ve seen it in Asheville and with Chalmers before, you haven’t seen it quite like this.
On opening night, understandably, Chalmers seemed slightly off his game. It’s true, his laryngitis was a minor hindrance (though not to audibility; it’s a big theatre, and Chalmers is miked), but his mother had also passed the previous day. In the grand theatrical tradition — “The show must go on!” — Chalmers bravely took the stage and triumphed over his profound personal adversity. Without knowledge of it, all the audience could tell was that Chalmers was a little hoarse … and he even joked about that.
For the rest of this weekend, Chalmers will be replaced by director Batenhorst, and if Batenhorst’s turn in A Christmas Season Show Carol is any indication, his winging of Crumpet will successfully fill Chalmers’ big, elfin shoes. With luck, Chalmers will make his most welcome return next week.
The Santaland Diaries, by David Sedaris. Adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello. Starring Tom Chalmers. Directed by Josh Batenhorst. With a short film by Shane Peters. Scenic concept: Matt Kaufman and Jill Summers. Costume design: Stan Poole and Deborah Austin. Lighting design: Jason Williams. Stage Manager: Lindsey Cashion.
Shows Friday and Saturday, Dec. 11 and 12, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 17, 18 and 19. Tickets $15. More info at www.ashevilletheatre.org.