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It's That Time of Year

Two holiday classics hit the stage

John Compher (left) and John Sachsman perform a radio play of a movie on stage.
Robert Dorfman is not David Sedaris.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/16/2009

The Santaland Diaries; It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

By David Sedaris; by Joe Landry

Through Dec. 20 at CenterStage; Through Dec. 20 at Fells Point Corner Theatre

At the preview performance of The Santaland Diaries at CenterStage, production director and company Artistic Director Irene Lewis hilariously and unnervingly described her disdain for the Bob Dylan Christmas carols that were the pre-show house music. It was a fitting way to kick off David Sedaris' tale about the seedy underbelly of holiday cheer. As with much of Sedaris' work, this is a true-ish story following the author's exploits as an elf at Macy's in New York. Sedaris has no Christmas spirit, just a fondness for the absurd that finds him unable to resist this bizarre opportunity.

The story, which originally aired on NPR, was adapted for the stage by Joe Montello. Robert Dorfman tackles the one-man show with an edgy feistiness. It's a daunting task, more than an hour of talking and keeping an audience interest all on your own, with only a few props to help you. Dorfman is up to the task, and as Lewis pointed out in her intro, the show simply wouldn't work without talent of his caliber.

The show takes place in CenterStage's Head Theater, which is set up cabaret-style with small round tables and chairs. Patrons are encouraged to grab a drink from the bar. When the play begins, Dorfman wanders onstage with a drink in his hand, as if we're all at a party and he has an amusing anecdote to share.

He then takes the audience through a winter spent as Crumpet the Elf, leading children through lines that snake for hours and putting up with obsessed parents, cringingly sincere fellow elves and Santas, and the kind of indignities that come with being a grown man in an elf costume. It is a tribute to both Sedaris' writing and Dorfman's skill that you really feel like you can see the other characters and every inch of Santaland, from the magic window and the magic tree to the Santa shacks where photos are taken, even though Dorfman is alone on a mostly bare stage.

Lewis and scenic designer Jennifer Stearns have a few tricks up their sleeves, though. When Dorfman goes from elf-in-training to Crumpet, an elf costume falls from the rafters. On occasion, the blue background becomes translucent revealing a Santa or an oddly ominous holiday decoration.

If there is a weak point in this production, it is simply that Dorfman isn't Sedaris. For all his energy, quick timing, and ability to play a pause, Dorfman lacks Sedaris' inexplicable innocence. And that innocence is what lets him make comments about the handicapped and mock children without it ever seeming mean-spirited. In Dorfman's hands, Crumpet is more of a catty queen and occasionally, perhaps because Dorfman brings the show so believably to life, the comments sting. Still, CenterStage's Santaland Diaries offers a bravura performance and a welcome antidote to the sentimental treacle shoved down throats this time of year.

Fells Point Corner Theatre's It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play faces many of the same challenges as Santaland Diaries. It, too, must work without much in the way of scenery. And while features a cast of several actors, who depict a radio performance, they don't really get to interact in the way we expect at the theater--actors rarely stand next to each other confined to one of three old-timey microphones onstage. Where Dorfman manages to create a convincing world all by himself, It's a Wonderful Life's cast never elevates the show beyond its concept.

The play takes place in a radio station on Christmas Eve 1947. On the air and applause signs light up and a sound-effects operator (Dan Moran) sits in the back slamming doors and stomping shoes. The cast members sits on chairs lined up along the stage when it's not their turn at the mic. It's not surprising that there is no costume designer listed in the program, as the cast's outfits are wildly inconsistent. Kara Turner, who plays Violet Bick and others, is in period clothing--as is Moran--but other cast members appear to be wearing generic winter wear. If they were going to try to sell the 1940s setting, they really needed to commit to it fully.

The cast varies quite a bit in ability, and some from part to part. Stephen Rourke is convincing as Old Man Gower and God, but turns Henry Potter into an Oil Can Harry cartoon villain. John Compher proves more than capable of balancing Uncle Billy and Clarence, George Bailey's guardian angel, creating two believable characters despite their similarly befuddled demeanors.

Turner has Violet's swagger, but lacks emotional depth, and Moran does Harry with a John Wayne voice that is simply weird. Besides Compher, Jonathan Sachsman and Virginia Frank, as George and Mary, fair the best. Frank brings sweetness, joy, and sass to Mary, and Sachsman portrays George's bluster and frustration without losing his warmness. It is unfortunate, however, that Sachsman spends every moment he's not speaking with a giant smile plastered across his face. It takes away from the nuanced character he otherwise creates.

Despite some good turns and wonderful source material--adapted by Joe Landry--this production never becomes more than a reading--complete with scripts in hand--of It's a Wonderful Life. And why watch people read this story when you could go home, turn on the television, and be almost guaranteed that Frank Capra's justifiably classic movie will be on?

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