Review: The Santaland Diaries

J. Robert Moore's take on Crumpet sends the Macy's elf to camp

When it comes to Austin's stages, you can count on one hand the number of comedic performances so hilariously perfect that, years after the fact, they can still tickle your ribs just thinking about them.

J. Robert Moore as Crumpet in The Santaland Diaries (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

Along with Joe Sears and Jaston Williams in the various Tuna shows and Shannon Sedwick's immortal Patsy Cline at Esther's Follies, the most enduring and endearing comic portrayal in Austin theatre history must be Martin Burke as "Crumpet" in David Sedaris' one-man Christmas take-down, The Santaland Diaries, a holiday perennial at Zach Theatre for lord-knows-how-long. Since Burke has apparently hung up his elf hat (permanently?), the show has been entrusted to the capable talents of director Nat Miller and actor J. Robert "Jimmy" Moore to deliver the comic goods. Moore returns to the role this season after taking it on last year, and he’s a good fit.

Sedaris’ autobiographical tale (adapted to the stage by Joe Mantello) centers around his desperate quest for employment in his new-to-New York youth. While dreaming desperately of the fame he feels destined for, our hero fends off starvation by landing a temporary gig as an elf known as Crumpet in Macy’s Santaland section. His job is to both entertain and wrangle the kiddies and adults eager to get their quality time with Macy’s Santa. Based on the performance pressure and the holiday retail pandemonium he describes during the course of the show, this is not a job anyone could hold for an extended period of time and still maintain a modicum of sanity.

If you’ve been to one of Sedaris’ annual “readings” in Austin, it’s difficult not to hear his voice in your mind’s ear as the actor navigates the material. The challenge for the actor is to layer his own interpretation – or comic personality – on top of Sedaris’ tart observations, thereby taking possession. Whereas Burke played Crumpet as an adorable imp with a devilish smile, a twinkle in his eye, and mischief on his mind, Moore goes for a campier approach. While his Crumpet struggles to perform his elfen duties, he makes it clear he’d rather be paid for singing show tunes, and we occasionally feel a delightful bitchiness beneath the surface, just itching to break out.

In Zach’s uber-intimate Whisenhunt Theatre, scenic designer J. Aaron Bell has provided some clever touches, while Sound Designer K. Eliot Haynes has fun with some sound effects that I don’t remember from earlier years. (But hey, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it.)

This is Moore and Miller’s second go-round with Santaland, and I predict they’ll be back again. For sure, the longevity of Santaland Diaries proves that for some audiences, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Crumpet.

The Santaland Diaries
Zach Theatre Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey, 512/476-0541
Through Dec. 29
Running time: 1 hr., 15 min.

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Zach Theatre, The Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris, Nat Miller, J. Robert Moore, K. Eliot Haynes, J. Aaron Bell, Martin Burke

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