The Santaland Diaries

Making his debut in 'The Santaland Diaries,' Rob Williams creates an elf who's not so naughty yet who keeps the show nice

Arts Review

The Santaland Diaries

Zachary Scott Theatre Center Whisenhunt Arena Stage, through Jan. 2

Running Time: 1 hr, 10 min

It's no secret that underneath the sweet and pretty surface of Christmas sometimes lurks a rather ugly season. Scratch that shiny peppermint cane, and you'll often find coal, black and bitter to the taste. There's the shrill, inescapable commercialism, the greed on both sides of the cash register, foul tempers, indifference to the needy – all that stuff Charlie Brown was complaining about 40 years ago. So it was old news by the time David Sedaris got a job as an elf at Macy's and witnessed firsthand all the cruelty, insensitivity, and ill will toward men committed right there in the sweet and generous heart of the season (well, its secular side, anyway): the meeting place of children and Santa. His tale of that experience, The Santaland Diaries, was and is wickedly funny in its cataloging of Yuletide crimes and misdemeanors, but it didn't really surprise us on that score. And for six years, neither did the Zachary Scott Theatre Center's stage production. In Martin Burke's deliciously memorable performance, you sensed that here was a cynic whose season as an elf confirmed all his worst suspicions about human nature, that our baser instincts will out every time.

But that's all changed this Christmas. Another actor has stepped into the role and with him comes surprise. Rob Williams, who has previously spent Decembers at Zach performing as one of the Flaming Idiots, is now among the teeny tannenbaums and gargantuan gumdrops spinning Sedaris' saga of holiday jeer. Wisely, neither he nor director Dave Steakley have sought to duplicate Burke's work. Instead, they've shaped the role to Williams' personality, which is much sunnier, optimistic. As he climbs into the Little Elf suit and starts to relate the many indignities he suffered in it, Williams seems caught off-guard, as if he never imagined that people could be so bossy, thoughtless, mean. He comes across as a good-natured guy, an Everyman from the heartland, who's unexpectedly found himself slaving nine-to-five in the fifth circle of hell. His initial "can you believe this" astonishment, besides being totally understandable – and totally disarming – suggests a man who believes people are inherently good and is stunned when they aren't. He tells us that he's not a nice person himself, but it doesn't wash; everything about Williams says the opposite: his eyes, his grin, his voice, his open manner – all testify to his niceness. Even his acts of defiance – e.g., telling people that if they step on the Magic Star, they'll be able to see Cher – feel more like lighthearted mischief than guerrilla warfare by a disgruntled employee battling a brain-numbing job.

Now, as Williams gets deeper into this twisted territory, his voice takes on a matter-of-fact flavor, as if he's come to accept the insanity swirling about him as normal. He seems swept up in the madness, losing his faith in the decency of human beings, until an 11th-hour encounter with a saintly Santa brings him back from the brink. Williams' delivery of this moment of emotional rescue is understated, like much of his performance, but it brims over with a tenderness that's honest and true. This approach may be surprising to those familiar with Sedaris' version or Burke's, but it works because it's so in keeping with Williams' persona and his sincerity. It fits with the man who, before launching into the Sedaris story, makes a bologna sandwich with his feet, who's as quick to poke fun at himself as anyone, who engages the audience playfully and never cruelly.

This is not to sidestep the humor of the piece. Williams has two decades' experience with a comedy team, and it's to be expected that he would be able to mine every laugh he wanted from an expertly crafted comic work such as Santaland. He does, and with the same effortlessness and easy charm that he juggled torches and scythes. And his rapport with fellow performers Meredith McCall and Jason Connor – who deliver their own treats in four comic songs preceding the Diaries – is as breezy and natural as with his old partners. It's just that there's no surprise in the fact that this edition of Santaland keeps your funny bone constantly tickled. The surprise is in the elf who's not so naughty yet who keeps the show nice.

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The Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris, Dave Steakley, Rob Williams, Meredith McCall, Jason Connor, Martin Burke, Zachary Scott Theatre Center

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