Theater Wit: “The Santaland Diaries”

The biggest problem with any stage production of “The Santaland Diaries” is that it doesn’t star David Sedaris, the witty writer and public-radio raconteur who made the story famous in the first place.

Theater Wit confronts that issue head-on with its new production. Almost as soon as actor Mitchell Fain steps out onto the stage, he announces: “I am not David Sedaris.”

Fain is, however, a talented actor with a lively sense of humor that shows in the gleam of his eyes and the curl of his smile. Equally important, he’s an amiable host who makes audience members feel like they’re with a friend—a very chatty friend who has a story to tell. For the most part, the story he tells is the same one that Sedaris told 20 years ago. It began as a National Public Radio essay about Sedaris’ experiences working as an elf at a Macy’s department store, where he observed the human behavior in that surreal scene.

But Fain frequently diverges from the original text (in this adaptation written by Joe Mantello and directed by Jeremy Wechsler). He adds local jokes, mentioning Chicago neighborhoods, and throws in recent current events, like the Petraeus affair and the debate over gay marriage. If you’re stuck in the mindset that this is Sedaris’ story from 1992, these elaborations don’t make any logical sense—but Fain makes it seem plausible that this is his story. At the same time, he stays true to Sedaris’ most memorable observations.

Fain brings out an important subtext in the original Sedaris story—a gay man’s struggle to find a place in an often-hostile world—while keeping this 75-minute show light and entertaining. Even if you’ve heard or read this story before, it still offers a refreshing laugh at the Christmas season’s absurdities.

“The Santaland Diaries” continues through December 30 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. For tickets and show times, call 773-975-8150 or visit their website.