Press Theatre

Santaland Diaries Review – Stage Scene LA


That practice makes perfect was proven on Wednesday by the multitalented Matt Crabtree in the last of his Guaranteed Understudy Performances in David Sedaris’s The SantaLand Diaries, the true story of the writer’s humiliating (but hilarious-in-retrospect) stint as a Christmas elf at New York City Macy’s “SantaLand.”  With two performances under his belt last year, and another two this holiday season (including a last minute step-in for Paulo Andino the previous Thursday), this fifth and (possibly) final understudy performance turned out just about as fabulous as fabulous can be.

Once again a collaborative effort between recent Ovation Award-winning director Michael Matthews and his SantaLand star (or in Crabtree’s case “understar”), this now fourth annual Blank Theatre Christmas tradition takes twenty-seven pages of dialog without a single stage direction and turns them into a full-fledged play, one in which Crabtree brings to life a myriad of characters over just about every inch of the Stella Adler Theatre stage.

Sedaris stand-in Crabtree sets the scene by explaining, “I am a forty-year-old man applying for a job as an elf,” though “it could be worse.”  He could be applying to be one of those people “dressed as objects and handing out leaflets” on the streets.  (And anyone looking this good at forty has got to be doing something right.)

Over the course of the play’s seventy or so minutes, we see this would-be writer’s dream of going straight from Penn Station to the office of One Life To Live turn into a life-unaffirming Macy’s gig as an elf rather ignobly named Crumpet.

Along the way, Crabtree creates one colorful, distinctive character after another, from a waitress who punctuates every phrase and sentence with a question mark to a well-seasoned lady boss who tells the female elves that she has “scraped enough blood out from the crotches of elf knickers to last me the rest of my life. There’s also the “multimedia” dad, “bent over with equipment, relentless in his quest for documentation” of his children’s visit with Santa, the mother-from-hell who slaps her sobbing daughter, yelling, “Goddamn it, Rachel, get on that man’s lap and smile or I’ll give you something to cry about,” and the customer who threatens to get Crmptet fired, and his fantasy response to her, “I’m going to have you killed!”

And that’s just a handful of the dozens of unforgettable creations by the supremely creative Crabtree.

Adding to the excitement of this year’s tour-de-force Crabtree performance was seeing last year’s characters tweaked and in some cases reinvented for the benefit of audience returnees.

A surprise treat at Wednesday’s performance came during one of the show’s many audience participation moments when Crabtree brought down a surprised Andino for a once-in-a-lifetime (or at least once-in-a-holiday-season) chance to see the production’s usual star and his cover onstage together.  (Kudos to Andino for being such a charming good sport!)

With an understudy as supremely prepared and utterly appealing as the indefatigable Crabtree, even audience members who may have chosen Wednesday’s performance simply for convenience’s sake (the show normally runs Thursdays through Sundays) could hardly have gotten a finer, more polished, and more hilarious show than that the one given by Crabtree’s Crumpet & Friends.

–Steven Stanley
December 5, 2013