Topher Payne is the new Christmas elf in ‘Santaland Diaries’

Crumpet, the dyspeptic department store elf in Horizon Theatre’s “Santaland Diaries,” has been a fixture of the Atlanta holiday season for 18 years.

He complains about his co-workers, reports on the fistfights in the line to sit on Santa’s lap, and makes hilarious fun of the gay apparel he is required to wear.

For 18 years, the venerable Harold M. Leaver has performed as Elf Crumpet. This year, as Leaver retires from his role, Atlanta playwright and actor Topher Payne takes up the green and red mantle of the Christmas Elf, and he is excited, nervous and as humble as a 6-foot-3 elf can be.

“I’m coming in knowing that I’ve got some big pointy shoes to fill,” said Payne, 36.

The switch is a dramatic change for the Atlanta theater. Crumpet carries the play, talking to the audience throughout. “As a storyteller, to be given 90 minutes to do that is an amazing gift and a tremendous responsibility,” said Payne.

A busy author with more than a dozen productions under his belt, Payne has exploited “Christmas magic” in his own dramas. There’s the unabashed sentimentality of his screenplays for Hallmark’s seasonal TV movies, “A Gift to Remember” and “Broadcasting Christmas,” and the screwball comedy of “Let Nothing You Dismay” (commissioned by Dunwoody’s Stage Door Players), with eight actors playing 22 characters.

Though he’s had plenty of practice spinning Yuletide tales, Payne takes this particular assignment very seriously. “I’m a huge fan of this material and have been even before it was a stage show,” he said, during a conversation at Grant Park coffeehouse Octane. “There’s a million ways to get it wrong. And I didn’t want to screw it up.”

In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Payne spoke about his delight in landing the role, mixed with happy dread.

“Santaland Diaries” was originally an essay by humorist David Sedaris, who had come to New York City to hit it big as a writer but instead found himself cleaning other people’s apartments and doing other odd jobs. The oddest of these, working as an elf at Macy’s, provided an opportunity to observe the insanity of certain Christmas rituals, and the mordant humor therein.

To the surprise of the author, his essay about elfdom led to an appearance on National Public Radio, a writing career, and a string of best-sellers.

Actor/director Joe Mantello adapted Sedaris’ essay for the stage, and it was first produced in New York in 1996, and in Atlanta shortly thereafter.

Payne served as the male sidekick to Elf Crumpet for two seasons of the show, in 2004 and 2005. “I observed Harold up close working his magic in the role, and I knew exactly the size of the meal that I was going to have to be digesting.”

Said Lisa Adler, Horizon’s co-founder, “He has Harold’s rhythms in his head, but Topher has a different personality, so it will be a different show.”

Payne knew he was going to approach the role in his own fashion. “Harold and I are very different performers, not the least of which: I outweigh him by about 100 pounds.” When the staff at the Horizon began talking to Payne about wardrobe, he pointed out to them, “You realize that Harold’s costume would fit on my hand like a puppet, right? But good God, the first time I put on those candy cane tights and looked in the mirror in full wardrobe, well, there was no doubt that we had found comedy.”

Payne said he hasn’t talked to Leaver about the play, but “the fact that he didn’t lay down in traffic to stop me from taking the role, I’m taking that as a very good sign.”

Even though Payne is more of a Will Ferrell-sized elf than a Harold Leaver-sized elf, he says he can find a way to fit the role. We have all had terrible jobs during the holidays, he said, and “Christmas makes you crazy, the holidays make you insane. ‘The Santaland Diaries’ captures that pandemonium and also finds a few moments of sweet to go with that bitter.”

While Payne has been a regular performer, he’s spent the last five years focusing on writing. During the coming marathon that runs Nov. 17 through Dec. 31 (with two performances on some days) he’s going to face some strictly physical challenges.

“The first adjustment that I made after I accepted the role was acknowledging that the groceries have to change in this house.” How many pounds will he lose? “I don’t do numbers, I just see how things fit. I cut out carbs, high protein, no bread, no cheese, all the things that make life worth living. I gave up everything I love except coffee, because I’m not made of stone.”

On those two-a-day workouts, the hardest part is the waiting, he says. “It’s the moments in between the shows that are quite, quite horrible, because the adrenaline’s coming down. There isn’t time for a nap. All you can do is be in a very still place. I play ‘Tetris.’ It keeps my brain going and keeps my hands busy.”

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