By Patrick O’Brien
This is not a write-up about Theater Wit’s seasonal mounting of David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries, the one-man show starring Mitchell J. Fain as the raconteur-cum-Macy’s elf dubbed “Crumpet.” This is, instead, This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Christmas Miracles), a one-man show (plus songs) starring Mitchell J. Fain as himself, pulling back the curtain on he who’s donned the elfin hose for eight years and 252 performances. (He’s kept count.)
What does it take to do a holiday piece for that long? Especially a one-man holiday piece? Especially a famously knowing and wry holiday piece? It’s the story that turned Sedaris’ Christmastime retail lemons into a lemony hot toddy, so any performer doing that piece must be brave enough to follow through on its call-outs to people’s lesser instincts and uglinesses in a season dedicated to charity, but also come through with a big-enough sprinkling of sugar and goodwill to keep things personable.
That sounds like Fain, whose journey had many more hitches than just Sedaris’ fending off testy shoppers. Small, Jewish, gay and hailing from a family free of ambition and stability, Fain made a great big leap of faith moving from his small hometown in Rhode Island to Chicago. Things got better — he came out, forged lasting friendships, made what amends he could with his family and found steady work. Then, things got worse — his mother, among other vital and occasionally volatile figures in his life, passed away. Finally, he dug down and found the light inherent in those bleaker moments, and crafted the presentation now onstage at Theatre Wit.
Wit artistic director Jeremy Wechsler led a workshop performance of this show last year and reprises his role as director here, and so successful is his direction that it feels undirected. Fain is so damn irrepressible, there’s no choice but to let him at it, but he’s also savvy enough to keep track of tempo when it’s called for. (The show runs just under 90 minutes, no intermission.)
Perhaps it helps that Fain has some back-up: Meghan Murphy, Chicagoland musical theatre’s gift that keeps on giving, on vocals and Julie B. Nichols on keys, singing properly juxtaposed classics (holiday or otherwise) as well as originals so cannily written, they might as well have been pulled from a book of lead sheets. (It don’t get better than “Rhode Island Is Famous for You,” an over-the-top-but-just-right paean to the man of the hour, with puns and word-mangling straight out of Tin Pan Alley.)
And it blessedly ain’t wholly anecdote-song-anecdote; everyone interacts with everyone. Fain and Murphy are besties and roomies, and they share that endearment with the audience. They’ll ask questions, the audience will answer, they’ll find their favorites, and jestful as it can be, there’s genuine affection.
Then again, it’s hard to say who’d do a Christmas show without affection. Santaland Diaries, while not merciless, does keep holiday cheer at an arm’s distance. Maybe Fain, Weshler, Murphy, et al wanted to shake things up this year. Not a story about elves talking to people, but people talking to people, gathered in close.
This Way Outta Santaland is a wholly fitting, wholly endearing way in, then.
“This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Christmas Miracles)” runs through December 30 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Charles Osgood.