David Sedaris' The SantaLand Diaries is a gem of a story. Well written, saradonic without being mean-spirited, and presenting the always slightly off-beat perspective, this piece has been enjoyed by millions of readers (it is published in several books) and listeners (Sedaris has presented the story on NPR and BBC). The tale is that of Sedaris spending a Christmas season as one of Santa's elves at Macy's department store. Running commentary on those he works for and those he serves (the Santas, the parents and the children) is presented in a way that lends an air of "you were there" qualified by "but you should be glad you really weren't."
Though diehard fans believe that only Sedaris can do justice to his own words, occassionally regional theatre companies offer the story as a holiday solo one-act play. Casting is crucial, however, as the tone of the piece is important and the actor's style can turn hilarious irony into bitter acrimony. The Pittsburgh City Theatre presented The SantaLand Diaries last year, accompanied by Seasons Greetings, another short story by Sedaris. That production was a success, and the theatre brings Diaries back this year without accompaniment. And again it is a success.
Helming this short but sweet evening is Jesse Tyler Ferguson, an actor who has appeared on Broadway and Off (read Ann's interview with Jesse). The boyish redhead brings a certain charm to this role, similar to what Sedaris does when presenting his work, but with a different personality. Ferguson plays the part bewildered but not yet defeated. He is animated and thoughtful, with knowing looks sent often to the audience. Ferguson is very likeable on stage and can really evoke empathy for his character's tribulations as the self-named elf Crumpet. If at times he is reminiscent of Jack McFarland, the character on TV's Will and Grace played by Sean Hayes, those moments are fleeting and seem to be more coincidence than imitation.
The set, by Michael Olich, is spare as can be. Awash in red, the stage area contains a single item: a very oversized chair with a wreath on the back. One of the chair legs is secured to the floor which allows Crumpet to spin the chair around to symbolize the transition between mini-stories in the script. Ferguson also climbs up on the chair to sit and dangle his legs, and he takes refuge under the chair as the countdown to Christmas, along with Crumpet's patience, approaches its end.
A visit to the City Theatre to see Jesse Tyler Ferguson in The SantaLand Diaries is a wonderful break from the hectic holiday activities that tax so many of us. A quirky look at how the Christmas season could be worse, were we confined to the hell that is SantaLand for a few weeks, is just the cure for the exasperation in our own lives.
The SantaLand Diaries, directed by Peter Flynn and starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson, has been extended through January 6 at the main stage of the Pittsburgh City Theatre. For ticket information, call 412-431-2489 or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org.