WATERTOWN - "The Santaland Diaries," director Joe Mantello's 1998 adaptation of the 1992 memoir that launched David Sedaris's literary career, is not for the saccharine of heart. Things can get pretty ugly backstage at Macy's New York flagship store when Santa is in residence - onstage, too, as parents make crude requests or "art-direct" their squirmy offspring into memento-worthy tableaux. The trick to carrying off this one-man tour de force as elf/witness is not to let the litany of outrages turn into one brief (hourlong) but relentless screed.
Taking over at Downstage @ New Rep for impish John Kuntz, whose run sold out last year (as did this season's, pre-opening night), Guy Olivieri - a standout in New Rep's recent "tick, tick . . . BOOM" - proves a worthy, personable successor. His is a cuddlier "Crumpet" (Sedaris's assigned elf name). Even as Sedaris/Crumpet protests the indignities imposed by this most temp of temp jobs and expresses his intent to do the absolute minimum, Olivieri can't help twinkling: He's irrepressibly cute.
The script starts with Sedaris recalling his first three weeks as a starry-eyed yahoo in Manhattan, when he imagined that he'd immediately be swept up into the glamorous cast of "One Life to Live" (a soap that happens to number among Olivieri's real-life credits). Signing on for elf duty is a desperate fall-back move impelled by penury and unemployment: "Even worse than applying," he observes upon spotting the ad, "is the very real possibility that I won't be hired."
Having made the cut (squeaking in behind the dwarves, "the guys with the biggest ears and, oh, the women without chins"), he submits to rigorous training, which includes a motivator spouting a hip-hop Santa cheer. A test run with "terribly sick and deformed children" is the one truly tasteless segment (one wishes it were excised) - far worse than a trainer's rant regarding feminine hygiene or a tour of the "vomit corner."
Crumpet's fellow elves provide the readiest merriment: the gung-ho if not-too-swift Gingersnap, for instance, who wonders whether there might be an opening for a year-round elf ("Any more spirit and they'd have to medicate her"), or the one he calls the Walrus, who spends his shifts hitting on mommies-in-waiting as if Santaland were his own personal singles bar. But the absolute highlight has to be Olivieri responding to a carol request Christina Aguilera-style, with a torturous, one-finger-in-the-ear caterwaul.
Clearly, "The Santaland Diaries" is not your standard Christmas fare, and it's not intended for youngsters still in thrall to the big man in red (nicely captured by set designer Cristina Todesco's backdrop, an up-nostril closeup of a grinning, white-mustached mouth that at first glance resembles a wintry snowscape). Teenagers would likely appreciate the sardonic worldview. As for Scroogily inclined adults who've had it up to here with spoon-fed holiday cheer, it may serve as a bracing tonic - sufficient to see them through yet another cycle of forced bonhomie and compulsory consumerism.