Ocean State Theatre Co.’s SantaLand Diaries

Ah, humbug
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 18, 2012

SantaLand-Diaries1_main
SATAN’S HELPER? Watts as Crumpet.
It takes a brave performer to take on SantaLand Diaries, since it launched the career of David Sedaris when he read a shorter version of this droll account on NPR 20 years ago. But then again, the story is so funny that Mr. Magoo could read it monotone and break us up. The tale recounts the misadventures of an elvish Santa's helper at Macy's department store in Manhattan, and before it is over, children, you will never again wish to be reborn as a little mythical creature with turned-up shoes.

Ocean State Theatre Company is staging the one-man show through December 30, directed by Amiee Turner, and it could enthusiastically revive the local career of Lennie Watts, who was a mainstay at Theatre by the Sea in its pre-2001 incarnation. Watts puts his own stamp of personality on the story, as much so as the guy this all happened to. Without rushing, he zips through the proceedings in an hour flat, which is 10 minutes trimmed off the running time of most productions.

There is a footnote to the whole accuracy business. Although Sedaris did work as an elf at Macy's for a couple of seasons, what he presented as a true account has subsequently been labeled fiction by NPR because of its exaggerations and invented details. It's hard to believe, for example, that one-third of those willing to spend an hour shuffling through the line to speak with Santa are lonely grown-ups without a kid in tow.

But most exaggerations are entertainingly unlikely embellishments, such as a macho blowhard fellow elf, the Walrus, who thinks he's such a ladies' man that he hits on the mothers. Also, the narrator says he went around saying things like "I love Satan! Doesn't everybody?" as though it's an honest mistake any dyslexic could make. He's sure he didn't pass the drug test because "my urine had twigs and the roaches floating in it," and who would want to be deprived of that image?

Watts presents himself not as an entertainer eager to please but rather as someone having an interesting conversation with us. So his occasional bursts into outlandish mimicry pack maximum punch, such as when he demonstrates the "forced merriment" the narrator refused to display on the job or the screeching motivational cheerleader demonically shouting "Santa! Santa!" The only moment I noticed that the laid-back Watts in Sedaris persona might have pumped up more enthusiastically for better effect was when the narrator is singing a Billie Holiday-style version of "Away In a Manger" to annoy the mother who requested it.

To keep this all from coming across like standup comedy at a microphone, we are given a sense of place. Bracketed by two oversized Santa and reindeer decorations, Watts is talking to us in the locker room where the elves get into their costumes. He does so 15 minutes into the proceedings, replete in green velvet, candy cane kneesocks, and cute red booties. We can't smell the flop sweat of a life's failure or the sodden laps excited kids have had accidents on, but we can imagine. We hope that he has something stronger than cold cocoa in the Santa head sippy cup he takes from his locker.

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  Topics: Theater , David Sedaris, Amiee Turner, Ocean State Theatre Company
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