NORTH EAST — Amid the joy and sweetness of the Christmas season, humor writer David Sedaris finds a special kind of holiday hell in “The Santaland Diaries” as an out-of-work, middle-aged writer who finds employment as an elf named “Crumpet” at a Macy’s department store.
Sedaris first read his essay on Natonal Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” in 1992. A longer version of the piece was later read on NPR’s “This American Life” in 1996. That same year, actor and director Joe Mantello adapted the essay into a one-man, one-act play in which Timothy Olyphant originated the role.
Now, Cecil College’s Milburn Stone Theatre will bring Crumpet to life — as alive as a bitter, dejected elf can be, that is — in its performance of “The Santaland Diaries” on Dec. 7-9. While Christmas-themed, MST cautions that the show is suggested for audiences 13 years old and up.
Sedaris’ character, played by Randy Marcheski, gives audiences a much-craved look behind Santa’s curtain and reveals that elf work isn’t all tied up with a pretty bow.
Director Andrew Mitchell, who is also the artistic director for MST as a whole, is directing “The Santaland Diaries” for the second time in his theatrical career — the first being a few years ago at the Chapel Street Playhouse in Newark, Del.
From 2006 to 2010, Mitchell worked seasonally at the Christiana Mall in Christiana, Del., where he found himself in similar circumstances as Sedaris was in. Able to find only minimal work as an actor at the time, Mitchell turned to retail work as a key holder at the Harry and David corporation.
“I spent so many years working in retail around the holiday season at Christiana Mall so I definitely empathize with anyone who has to work retail at the holidays,” he said. “My plights were not as hectic at times as say Crumpet has through David Sedaris. But I certainly remember a few hectic Black Fridays and unruly customers and panicked parents the same way that Crumpet has in the script itself.”
Like Mitchell, Marcheski’s ties to stories in “The Santaland Diaries” go way back. Ever since Sedaris came out with his 1997 book “Holidays on Ice,” a collection of holiday-themed writings including a passage called “SantaLand Diaries,” Marcheski has been reading about the author’s Christmas woes.
“I have bought that book so many times because I would pass it on to friends and buy it for them to read ... Of course I never get it back,” he said. “I went to look for mine when we started [this production] and it was of course not where I left it. I probably gave it away.”
Having listened to Sedaris read the piece on NPR so many times, Marcheski said it was fairly easy to slip into character.
“Some of it, having listened to him read it or him perform it, it was hard not to. Some parts, when I say certain lines, I say ‘Oh my god, I can’t not say it like he said it.’ That’s how I have it memorized.”
Crumpet isn’t your run-of-the-mill, happy-go-lucky, Buddy the Elf-esque companion; he’s more akin to a disgruntled tour guide leading you through the exhaustion and annoyance of commercial Christmas who would greet unruly guests with a grin and then spit in their gingerbread batter the second they turned away.
While Marcheski describes himself as more flamboyant than Sedaris’ more low-key personality, he said the character’s bitterness was a natural fit for him.
“It’s very familiar to me because I feel like sometimes I’m just as bitter and jaded as he is, so I can kind of relate to it,” he said.
Although some actors might be intimidated by the idea of being the only person performing, Marcheski actually enjoys having the stage all to his own.
“I’ve always said that my life was a one-man show,” he said. “People say I tend to be long-winded … so I have said that this is the first one-man show that is actually a show.”
As much as the Sedaris character is dissatisfied with his current career situation, he also displays an almost pixieish enjoyment with knowing all of the behind-the-scenes secrets, even if the knowledge was collected at the expense of his own sanity; it’s a noble sacrifice for the audience’s pleasure.
The play covers several miniature stories about topics such as job orientation as an elf trainee, deceit at The Magic Window, Santas of color, and an impression of Billy Holiday crooning “Away in a Manger.”
One section in the show that stands out to Marcheski is when a gruff man tells his character that he looks stupid in his elf costume. Another is when Crumpet reveals that Snowball, an adorable “twink” elf as Marcheski calls him, has not only been flirting with him, but has been racking up a whole list of elves and Santas and checking them out twice.
“The Santaland Diaries” itself is only about an hour long, so Mitchell said MST wanted to make sure audiences were getting their money’s worth as ticket prices are the same as the theater’s longer shows.
Before the show, local improv troupe Improv on Rye will perform. There will also be a reading “A Die Hard Christmas,” a book with verses written by Philadelphia comedian Doogie Horner in the style of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” that tells the story of the 1988 movie “Die Hard.”
“I consider it the greatest Christmas story ever told,” Mitchell said.
MST will balance out Sedaris’ adult humor with Cecil Dance Theater’s family-friendly “Holiday Enchantment” show on Dec. 15 and 16 at the college.
Mitchell said audiences will be able to “get both sides of crowds looking for a holiday escapism, whether it be a traditional dance show that Cecil Dance Theater offers or this which is geared more towards dropping the kids off with Grandma and Grandpa or a babysitter.”
“The Santaland Diaries” harnesses the power of humor to share Sedaris’ perspectives on the hypocrisy and outright savagery of the holiday season.
“I think people are going to find themselves laughing at these situations about parents who only really want to capture that picture of the happy Christmas,” Marcheski said. “But the underlying side is that’s really kind of sick because that’s not really what it’s like, and you can create this artificial wonderland of what our family is and ‘We’re so happy’ and it’s not really the idea of Christmas.”
Audiences find a message about the true spirit of Christmas — love, kindness, family — before promptly returning to the war zone that is working in retail during the holidays.
Reiterating that the show is not meant for children, Mitchell said adults will find a kindred spirit in Crumpet as they recall the holiday rush that they’ve participated in, either behind the retail counter or as a parent fending off crowds for Christmas gifts and photos of their children on Santa’s lap.
“We’ve kind of tagged this show with the whole idea of ‘For those who like their holidays more naughty than nice,’” he said.
The show’s heart isn’t as black as coal, but perhaps the eggnog has been spiked a bit.
“It’s certainly a show that is a good escape,” Mitchell said. “It is an escape from the traditional holiday fare. That’s what I’ve always enjoyed about this. It’s adult, but it’s not necessarily dark. It’s just of a higher brow than say some traditional holiday shows.”
Ticket prices are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors (55+) and active military personnel, $15 for Cecil College students and staff, and $12 for children 12 years old and under.