The Unhappy Elf

Todd Waite returns as David Sedaris' cranky Christmas elf in The Santaland Diaries at Alley Theatre.

By Nick Esquer November 30, 2015

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Todd Waite as Crumpet in The Santaland Diaries

Image: Alley Theatre

In humorist David Sedaris’ behind-the-scenes look at life as a Macy’s Christmas elf in his 1992 essay, SantaLand Diaries, readers and listeners and Christmas revelers were introduced to the dark side of the holiday season. Sedaris spent a holiday shopping season dressed as an elf in velvet, tight leggings and a fluffy ball-topped hat, being harassed by parents and spat on by children. And so, of course, in Sedaris fashion, he wrote it down, divulging the evils of consumerism in what is supposed to be the happiest time of year. Thankfully, and sadly, everyone can relate, including playwright Joe Mantello’s 1996 adaptation of the essay into a one-man, one-act play, which has been a staple of the Houston theater community since 2008. Also a staple of the Houston theater community, Alley Theatre actor-in-residence Todd Waite embodies the lone character Crumpet, his seventh time around.

“It comes back much more quickly of course, especially when you start moving in the space; your body—your muscle memory kicks in,” says Waite, who moved to Houston from his native Canada in 2000.

Waite once again dresses up in tights and velvet and fluffy ball-topped hat from December 4–31 as a middle-aged man who moves to New York City to pursue his lifelong dream of being on a soap opera, only to find work as a Christmas elf at Macy’s. The world around him opens up from Sedaris’ biting observations of drunken Santas, diva elves and all the sex and drama that occurs when working at the North Pole—or, rather, a propped up department store version of it.

“[Sedaris] fuels his observation mostly through humor so there’s this intellectual list that ‘s very playful and fun and amusing. He has a playful perspective on it, but I’m sure those observations, like most comics, come from a place where people’s behavior irritates him or confuse him,” notes Waite.

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Image: Alley Theatre

The play is set in the Alley’s Neuhaus Theatre, a blackbox setup that sees Waite engaging the audience and moving around the space to animate the stories told. Waite, whose parents celebrated Christmas, but kept the family away from celebrating materializing the holiday, shares a lot in common with the grumpy elf and owes a lot to the original scribe.

“Crumpet is in the center of the commercialization of the season. A lot of humor and joy comes from that because [Sedaris is] a humorist. But I think it’s always been my perspective on Christmas, so I think I share a lot of the same attitude he has about those elements.”

Outside of the text, Waite didn’t have to travel very far in his imaginative life to craft the outline of a character who suffers through a crappy. As a youngster, the actor spent summers scraping off all the anti-fouling paint from docked boats in Vancouver Island and then repainting it. Seagulls circled above and emptied their bowels on and around him. “This was the absolute worst job, so I can relate. But I was told it builds character.”

Thankfully for us, it’s all the character we need from Waite, a master of the stage.

Dec 4–31. $26–36. Neuhaus Theatre in Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700.