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by Keith Barber

A dispatch from Santaland on stage

Bing Putney plays “Crumpet,” a struggling actor who takes on the role of a Macy’s department store elf with extraordinary zeal in Triad Stage’s adaptation of David Sedaris’ humorous holiday essay, The Santaland Diaries. The production runs from Nov. 20-Dec. 20. (courtesy photo)

Who among us hasn’t felt at some point in our lives just a little bit cynical about the holiday season? Even Charlie Brown railed against the commercialism of Christmas in Charles Schulz’s animated masterwork, A Charlie Brown Christmas. In 1992, David Sedaris delighted NPR audiences with his hilarious retelling of his days as a Macy’s department store elf, a biting satire of the chaos and insanity that surrounds this special time of year. Triad Stage’s Jay Putnam has welcomed the challenge of bringing Sedaris’ words to life with his direction of The Santaland Diaries, which runs through Dec. 20 at the UpStage Cabaret venue of Triad Stage in downtown Greensboro. Putnam makes effective use of the intimate, 80-seat setting as theproduction kicks off with the gentle melodies and soft-as-melted-buttervoice of pianist Miss Peppermint, AKA Jessica Mashburn, performing“Please Come Home for Christmas” and “Silver Bells.” The audience mightbe fooled into thinking it’s witnessing a lounge act at a HowardJohnson’s but that quickly changes when Crumpet bounds onto the stage. Mashburnsits on a small, slightly elevated stage playing her piano. Sitting inthe spotlight, she welcomes the audience to the show. Putnam’s economicuse of the available space of the cabaret and creative set designs byChristian Young add greatly to the telling of the story to the point ofbecoming an additional character in the drama. During theperformance, Bing Putney, who plays the role of Crumpet, unfolds eachset piece like he’s opening a Christmas present, and around eachcorner, a surprise awaits the audience. Kudos to scenic designer Youngand stage manager Emily Malls for making the scene transitionsrelatively seamless throughout. Mashburn’s sardonic selection ofChristmas songs in the musical transitions from scene to scene elicitslaughter and reveals the genius stroke of having a piano player in thecast. After Mashburn warms up the audience, she is joined onstage byPutney’s character. The audience learns that

“Crumpet”is really his elf name. His real name is David and he proceeds torecount the story of how he wound up auditioning for the role of aMacy’s elf. Apparently, David came to New Yorkwith the dream of joining the cast of the soap opera “One Life toLive,” but he soon found those dreams in a scrap heap somewhere off 42nd Street. “A person needs a skill. Why didn’t I realize thatsooner?” Crumpet asks the audience. It is this kind of self-loathingthat is at the core of Sedaris’ humor, and Putney is most adept atportraying a man who is struggling to find his place in the world. Downto his last 50 cents, David answers a want ad in the New York Times that promises a fun, fantastic holiday experience. “Iam a 33-year-old man applying for a job as an elf,” Crumpet proclaims,drawing restrained laughter from the audience. Putney’s unmitigatedzeal and over-thetop sarcasm fits the tone of Sedaris’ work extremelywell. Putney is engaging, funny and highly attuned to the audienceresponse. If a joke doesn’t work, he quickly moves to the next bitwithout the slightest hesitation. On Opening Night on Nov. 20, the Santaland audienceat first appeared hesitant to laugh. Sedaris’ humor is not politicallycorrect and downright bawdy at times, but Putney’s physicality andcomic talents seem to communicate, “It’s okay to laugh,” and eventuallythe audience was won over. No two performances should be exactly alike,said Putney. “I think it’ll be a different show every night depending on what audience walks through the door,” he said. Putnam acknowledges Santaland Diaries isnot a play for the whole family. Sedaris’ commentary is not a treatiseon the Christmas spirit, “but there is a little kernel of Crumpet’sredemption,” said Putnam. How Crumpet finds redemption and,ultimately, his place in the world is the underpinning of the TriadStage production. The story progresses swiftly and as Christmas Eveapproaches, Crumpet sees the dark side of human nature in Macy’scustomers, confirming his worst beliefs about his fellow man. At onepoint, a customer threatens, “I’m going to have you fired.” Heresponds, “Well, I’m going to have you killed!” However, when allappears lost, Crumpet manages to find something magical in Christmas,and his transformation finally begins. “What’s the message atthe end of it? What’s the journey that carries you along?” Putnam askedrhetorically. “It’s a show that has a lot of cynicism to it, butultimately, I think it has a lot of heart.” The cast and crew of Santaland Diaries putstheir hearts into the extremely difficult task of adapting a belovedholiday essay into a play, and pull it off with warmth, generosity anda large dose of the Christmas spirit.

To comment on this story, e-mail Keith T. Barber at keith@yesweekly.com.

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