David Sedaris introduced Crumpet the Elf to the world on NPR in 1992 in an essay called The SantaLand Diaries, which described his experiences working at Macy's over Christmas. The piece was adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello in 1996, and the play — rueful, cynical, smart and hilarious, a perfect antidote to the usual seasonal treacle — has become almost as popular an annual tradition as the Nutcracker. The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company is now staging it for the third time with Denver Center Theatre Company favorite Matt Zambrano taking over the role of Sedaris — aka Crumpet.
Thinking about applying for the Macy's job, Sedaris notices human advertisements on the street, the people dressed as tacos, for instance, or — and I'm pretty sure this joke isn't in the original but has been interpolated by the company — a giant metal phallus that turns out to be a Chipotle burrito. At least if he gets the Macy's job, he reasons, he'll be among other elves and in his rightful environment. Having made the decision, he goes on to anatomize the absurd application and hiring process: wads of paperwork, meaningless interview questions, and all of it irrelevant because the only thing that really matters is being short. He meets both experienced elves, whom he finds creepily cheerful, and fellow newbies — the woman who ends every sentence with a question mark, the would-be artist whose works consist of human hair stuck onto radios. Then come costume fittings and boring days of training. One of the best passages concerns the costume manager who, holding up a calendar, states emphatically, "Ladies, you know what this is. Use it. I have scraped enough blood out from the crotches of elf knickers to last me the rest of my life. And don't tell me, 'I don't wear underpants. I'm a dancer.' You're not a dancer. If you were a real dancer, you wouldn't be here. You're an elf, and you're going to wear panties like an elf."
Sedaris offers an equally jaundiced elf's-eye view of life in SantaLand, and the cast of characters who throng the place. There's fellow elf Snowball, who flirts with every male he encounters. "Snowball is playing a dangerous game," Crumpet observes. "You really don't want to be working under a jilted Santa." Some of the Santas take their jobs seriously; others whip through their conversations with kids with practiced indifference. We encounter a whole gallery of children: little prima donnas, wailing tots who are terrified of Santa, and some who are damaged or sick. "The next one is missing a nose," Crumpet has to warn Santa. Or, "Crystal has third-degree burns covering 90 percent of her body." But it's the adults who truly horrify. One mother slaps her crying child, yelling at her to sit on Santa's lap and smile or she'll give her something to cry about. Another bullies her uncomprehending young son into asking Santa to stop products being tested on animals. A loud, obnoxious man from New Jersey plunks himself onto Santa's lap and requests a large-breasted woman, while his small-breasted wife stands beside him gritting her teeth. There's the black woman who asks for a black Santa, then protests that he isn't black enough, and the white woman who whispers a request for a Santa "like us."
And toward the end of the evening comes a moment of genuine near magic — which the script rapidly and efficiently undercuts.
Zambrano and director Stephen Weitz have been very free with the text, throwing in contemporary references — to Dexter, for example, and Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" — as well as a couple of mentions of Boulder. There's all kinds of physical improvisation, too. As he enters, Zambrano shakes hands with members of the audience; later, he gets everyone to join him in a SANTALAND cheer. He does a takeoff on the Sugarplum Fairy and gives a long, drawn-out demonstration of a kid vomiting. While at some moments he seems to be working a bit too hard, he sure knows how to hold a stage. He coruscates with energy. He can do all kinds of weird voices. Best of all, he sends the audience out into the night still laughing helplessly.