I love David Sedaris' writing, but on those rare occasions when I've heard the author read from his works on National Public Radio, I can only listen to him for a few minutes before feeling compelled to change the station. It's not that his high, reedy voice is unpleasant, exactly. But the caustic self-deprecation and derision that can make his stories so wickedly funny strike me as whiny and ungainly when Sedaris himself vocalizes them, and when he indulges in sentiment, his attempts at honest emotion ring hollow. (His "heartfelt" moments don't sound noticeably different from his sardonic diatribes.) This isn't a huge failing - Sedaris, after all, is a writer, not a performer - yet I still find that a little of him, vocally, goes a long way.
Mark D. Lingenfelter, the star of the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's current production of Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries, possesses a voice that's more than a bit reminiscent of the author's; it, too, is high and reedy, and can make the simplest of pronouncements sound like the zenith in sarcasm. For me, though, the difference is that I could listen to Lingenfelter talk all day long. This one-man Santaland Diaries (adapted by Joe Mantello, directed by Tristan Tapscott) finds the performer playing Sedaris in a Sedaris play, and I'll venture that Lingenfelter does a better job of it than the author himself could. If you're familiar with Sedaris' readings, you'll have no trouble accepting and enjoying Lingenfelter here. This, however, is Sedaris with a real actor in the role.
Any Santaland Diaries performer, of course, is handed a built-in advantage right off the bat, as the material itself is absolutely priceless. Through a series of blackout sketches featuring only modest trimmings from Sedaris' original essay - and with the chronology only slightly, infrequently rearranged - the one-act's "David Sedaris" figure shares with us his holiday season working as an elf for Macy's department store in Manhattan, an alternately fascinating and noxious experience that finds him contending with hateful parents, stupefied children, bizarre co-workers, and a relentless schedule. (Our hero's elf name is Crumpet, although, at one point, he considers changing it to Blisters.)
Sedaris', and "Sedaris'," observations are so keen and droll and horrifying that you laugh and wince in roughly equal measure. (You do the same just looking at designer Gregory Hiatt's wonderfully silly elf costume.) But what keeps the tale from being a one-note comic screed is the central character himself, who greets even the most outlandish and trying circumstances with bitter good humor, resilience, and a series of resplendently bitchy bon mots. Crumpet may be at the mercy of flaky Santas and rude patrons, but he gives as good as he gets.
So does Lingenfelter. Granted 70 minutes of spectacularly quick-witted conversation, the actor is unfailingly hysterical from his first minutes, when recounting the job's excruciating application process, to his last, when bidding adieu to his boss (who gives him a tender squeeze while viciously berating a customer). With his flabbergasted incredulity, unapologetic theatricality, and knack for hurling demeaning insults while sporting a wide, happy grin, Lingenfelter delivers the kinds of unforgettable readings and routines that you don't just want to tell your friends about, but want to act out for them: his attempts at expanding the job's rudimentary sign-language requirement ("Santa has a tumor in his head the size of an olive!"); his exasperation with parents who demand a racially "traditional" Santa; his near run-in with Phil Collins; his aborted flirtation with a teenage elf named Snowball. ("Snowball just leads elves on," he says, dolefully.)
Yet as hilarious as Lingenfelter is here, he's never merely a punchline machine, and achieves his effects through comedic variety and subtle emotional shadings. (It's the same feeling you get reading Sedaris' "Santaland" essay.) He's deeply entertaining when mimicking the assorted loons and dolts his Macy's tenure introduces him to - be they the dazed applicant who answers questions with more questions, or the surly husband who asks Santa for "a broad with big tits" for Christmas - and he performs a rather knockout rendition of Billie Holliday crooning "Away in a Manger." But Lingenfelter is also a supremely empathetic actor, and when he briefly drops his defenses and finds himself genuinely moved by the Christmas spirit, these moments are divinely touching, and Santaland's ode to the ridiculousness of holiday-themed commercialism morphs into a true celebration of the season.
I couldn't possibly have had more fun at Harrison Hilltop's 2008 closer, and in addition to his comedic and acting props, allow me to applaud Lingenfelter's tireless energy - on the Saturday I attended the show, he preceded his 3 p.m. Hilltop turn with a noon performance in Circa '21's Snow White, returned to Circa '21 for a 7:45 p.m. A Wonderful Life, and then returned to Hilltop for a midnight Santaland Diaries. Talk about Christmas presence.
The Santaland Diaries will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Christmas night, at 3 p.m. on December 27, and nine hours later, at midnight on December 28. For more information, visit HarrisonHilltop.com.