Friday, December 12, 2008
Theater reviews: The SantaLand Diaries and This Wonderful Life
SantaLand is a Dallas institution thanks to star Nye Cooper, while Life is fake, but a good fake.
Funny how the same holiday can trigger so many different emotions and attitudes and responses — and all in the same person. Christmas has its sentimental side, its silly side, its dark, cynical and commercials sides. And I’m kinda cool with all of them.
So it’s not capriciousness that I could, in the same weekend, embrace two very unlike one-man shows about the holidays: The first a bittersweet comedy, the second a brooding heart-warmer. But given my druthers, I’ll choose the comedy every time.
It helps that the humor spews forth from the pen of David Sedaris. The SantaLand Diaries, his classic Christmas quasi-canard about a stint as a Macy’s elf, is a stinging satiric masterpiece of economic uncertainty and the stresses of the holidays. (Sound familiar?) It’s become almost as much a staple in Dallas as the Dallas Theater Center’s Christmas Carol, thanks largely to its frequent star, Nye Cooper.
If you’ve seen Cooper in the role before and aren’t sure you should bother again, you should. There’s a new venue (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas), new director (Coy Covington), new set and costume … a new everything, including Cooper, whose interpretation has morphed from droll, sarcastic know-it-all to someone more desperate and sad. He does more distinct voices when describing the galaxy of shoppers parading through SantaLand, and his face is a toy box of hilarious expressions. It’s a virtuoso performance, his best ever in the role.
Covington has mined the comedy with his unique perspective, starting with the substitution of the caterwauling carols of the Korean chanteuse Wing, replacing Vince Guiraldi’s somber Peanuts music as the tone-setter. Aaron Patrick Turner’s costume — a Grinch-y combination of rigid-toed fairy boots, elfin ears and a sad hat curiously perched over his head like a question mark, punctuating each line — is inspired.
There’s a real dramatic arc to the character now; it’s less short-story stand-up than real theater, with a real emotional tug at the end of a delicious 60 minutes.
The milder success of This Wonderful Life, now in WaterTower Theatre’s studio space, can probably be attributed to the audience’s own familiarity with the Frank Capra film classic. Indeed, the star, Greg White, begins the evening by polling those assembled about how often they’ve seen it; everyone raises his hand, and then White proceeds to reenact the entire movie anyway.
There’s nothing wrong with abridging pop culture chestnuts for the stage as actorly showcases, but there are surprisingly few comments about the movie in Steve Murray’s script, the way, for instance, The Drowsy Chaperone so brilliantly skewers the conventions of the Broadway musical.
Occasionally White gets to comment on the improbable collection of ethnic stereotypes in tiny Bedford Falls, or the peculiar way George and Mary Bailey kiss while finding their key light, or the oddly extravagant swimming pool in the small-town gymnasium. There’s even a Proposition 8 joke. But basically, when Clarence gets his wings, the show’s over. Where’s the coda that pulls it all together, turning it into a piece of theater?
Genial and energetic, White’s skills as an impressionist are most evident when he’s pretending to be James Stewart, but his Mr. Potter sounds more like Dr. House, his Clarence lacks the dotty, tremulous voice of Henry Travers, his Mary… well, trust me, he is supposed to be Donna Reed. Luckily, Stewart’s character dominates the show.)
Capra’s schmaltz genius has proven to be virtually inimitable over the years, and explaining it simply doesn’t work. But there’s that sense-memory ingrained from hundreds of viewings of the film, and the play taps into that. It warms the cockles by proxy, a bit of counterfeit cornpone that still gives you the warm-and-fuzzies. Fake, perhaps, but a good fake. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? I’m sure David Sedaris would agree.
The SantaLand Diaries, Greenville Center for the Arts. Through Dec. 28. $12. 214-828-0094.
This Wonderful Life Addison Theatre Centre. Through Dec. 21. $20. 972-450-6232.
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