“Santaland Diaries” a retreat from seasonal sentimentality

Posted Dec. 23, 2009, at 4:33 p.m.

David Sedaris was 33 in 1992 when he worked as an elf in Santaland at Macy’s Department Store in New York City. Two years later, he read from the diaries he kept during those months on National Public Radio and launched what is now a career as a best-selling author.

What Sedaris sells best is a snarky anti-sentimentality that not only is hilarious, but also makes readers long for home and all its dysfunctional quirkiness. This is especially during this “special” season. That is why so many theater companies present Joe Mantello’s one-man show, adapted from “The Santaland Diaries.”

The Penobscot Theatre Company is presenting what has become an antidote to Americans demand for “Christmas cheer” for the third time in four years in rotation with its fine production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The combination is proving to be a crowd pleaser after disappointing ticket sales last year for “A Year With Frog and Toad” and “ATuna Christmas.”

Every actor who portrays Crumpet, the elf name Sedaris chose for himself during his time at Macy’s, makes it his own. PTC’s Producing Artistic Director Scott R.C. Levy in 2006 created an angry Jewish sprite of Hanukkah’s past and present. Nathan Halvorson’s Crumpet was more flamboyant — a queenly Crumpet.

Dominick Varney has gone in a completely different direction. He, like Sedaris the writer, seems to channel the characters he meets on the job. Varney becomes a sort of “every young artist trying to conquer New York” only to wind up working at Macy’s instead of starring in a soap opera.

Varney is at his best when re-creating — as Sedaris did so vividly in his diaries — his fellow elves, the Santas, the parents and the kids who come to visit Santaland. Whether it’s the mom seeking “a traditional Santa,” code for “white,” or the stressed out mother unable to quell her toddler’s tantrum or Santa Santa, the man who thinks he’s really the man in the red suit himself, Varney is hysterical.

“The Santaland Diaries” has been a welcome addition to the Christmas canon of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker.” So far, it has not grown tired and trite for Bangor area audiences.

Like the New Year’s diet resolution, “The Santaland Diaries” is the perfect bitter pill to get rid of all that sweetness consumed during the Christmas season. Besides, all that laughing burns a lot of calories.

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