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BWW Reviews: This Year's Entry in THE SANTALAND DIARIES at Portland Center Stage Will Still Make You Laugh

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'Tis the season already. I've got a lot of holiday-themed shows coming up in the next two weeks, and I have to admit I'm normally a bit of a Grinch when it comes to such things. I would be ever so happy if someone would come up with a new take on the season. The last unique tale about Christmas was David Sedaris's The Santaland Diaries, the best-selling humorist's story of working as an elf at Macy's one holiday season about twenty years ago. Of course I've heard The Santaland Diaries on NPR, and I've read the published version, but I hadn't seen the piece onstage yet.

Darius Pierce is a terrific actor; I've seen him in a number of plays, and he has an extraordinary ability to hold an audience with just his voice. He was quite impressive in Third Rail's Middletown, particularly in his delivery of the play's long and demanding opening narration. Here he tries to bring his talents to bear on Sedaris's snarky sarcasm, and the results are often hilarious. When Crumpet (the character's "elf name") gets annoyed with the other elves, the children, and their parents, Pierce doesn't get bitchy; he goes into full Shakespearean revenge mode, plotting his vengeance like Iago, and it's all the funnier for that. (To be honest, Sedaris's swishy Southern voice gets on my nerves after a few minutes, and I was grateful Pierce didn't try to imitate his style.) We really don't get to know Crumpet as a character beyond a few details provided in the beginning of the piece, but Pierce makes him into a fully realized person.

There are a few moments that don't quite come off. Pierce sometimes tries to find too much drama in the lines and ends up over playing, sounding rather like James Earl Jones reciting the telephone book, but he usually finds his way back to the right tone. And the ending, where Crumpet finally gets paired with a Santa he respects, just doesn't feel consistent with the rest of the piece, but then it doesn't make sense even when Sedaris himself reads the story. And - speaking as a person who weighs more than he should - can we please have a moratorium on making men who are not built like Brad Pitt being forced to walk around in their underwear? It's a cheap attempt at a laugh, and it doesn't come off, no matter who does it. I didn't like it when Jason Alexander was asked to do it on Seinfeld, or Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live, and I felt uncomfortable watching someone as talented as Darius Pierce (who, to his credit, plays the moment face forward, proudly going on with his lines) trying to get laughs in his BVDs.

That said, the physical production is handsome, and director Wendy Knox has found ways to help her solo actor vary the pace and presentation of the show so it never grows stale. I have to congratulate designer Jessica Ford on a lively set and a perfect elf costume.

But the credit mostly goes to Darius Pierce, I'm glad I got to see his turn as Crumpet. But now I'm hungry to see him do something that's worthy of his talent. And next Christmas...let's see if we can find something new to watch, eh, PCS?


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From This Author Patrick Brassell

Patrick Brassell is the author of five published novels and five produced plays. He has directed, produced, and designed sound for about fifty theater productions, (read more...)