Alley Theatre, through Dec. 31
By JOHN DeMERS
In every way, the Alley’s production of The Santaland Diaries is smaller than its production of A Christmas Carol. Of course, it’s in the smaller theater – the Neuhaus instead of the almost-Broadway Hubbard. It has a much smaller cast – only Todd Waite instead of the dozen-plus who multi-role their way through the dark Dickens parable. But most of all, it has a much smaller idea.
In lieu of the English writer’s powerful call for humanity in our dealings with each other, delivered with a stern warning from beyond the grave, we get one fairly bright smart-ass with a cute notion. Like the phrase I hate so much these days, Santaland Diaries “is what it is.” Meaning, it’s a one-joke magazine piece by Davis Sedaris (which it was, in Harper’s) that comes off as a clever NPR commentary (which it was, on Morning Edition), turned into a one-man show that runs only about an hour. Yet in city after city across this great country of ours, including Houston thanks to the Alley, Santaland has become an annual holiday event.
The premise, the big and mostly only gag, is simple enough. A 39-year-old single man finds himself desperate enough during the holidays in New York City to accept a temporary job as an elf in Santa’s Village, the kids Christmas photo operation at Macy’s. Why this gag works is that, while every adult has probably wondered half-heartedly how horrible that job must really be, few have actually bothered to do it. The “insights” of the catty elf named Crumpet, therefore, are more or less what we figured – long lines, crazy bosses, horrible people, Santas of every stripe changing with the shift. But they’re delivered, at least often enough to keep us laughing for an hour, with a quirky understanding, moments of biting satire and at least a little sympathy.
Todd Waite, who’s performing virtually all the company’s Santalands this year, has clearly made the role his own. He is particularly good at breaking the barriers between himself and the audience – sitting down next to them, chatting with them, ad libbing his reactions to their reactions. Waite’s performance is extremely real, believable, endearing. Like Sedaris himself in his NPR persona, Waite gives us a likable-enough guy going through what we always wondered about and bringing back one bizarre tale full of clever, disconnected moments. Those waiting for the magic of Christmas to transform our hero at the end had better run upstairs to the Alley’s bigger theater.