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Theater review: Lake City’s ‘SantaLand’ a dark holiday comedy

The colorful and festive set for Lake City Playhouse’s “The SantaLand Diaries” masks a dark side of the Christmas holiday as delivered by a cynical man dressed as an elf.

“Diaries,” written by humorist David Sedaris and adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello, is an extended satirical monologue highlighting one man’s experience working as an elf at Macy’s in New York City during the Christmas season. The man, played by Doug Dawson, offers his observations about the behavior of his co-workers, the shoppers and himself, all of whom channel anything but merry holiday good will.

Dawson’s thin frame and grim expression add to the humor of the piece, especially when he dons his elfin garb and becomes Crumpet. Still, the opening of the monologue is not as polished as it could be. Dawson stumbles over lines sometimes, and his blocking seems to lack precise choreography by director Heath Bingman. This improves over the course of the evening, however.

Dawson is most successful when he does impressions of the people Crumpet meets, and he often demonstrates his aptitude for physical comedy.

The bit where he portrays his supervisor leading the crew of elves in a cheer for Santa is funny, as is his impression of Mick Jagger.

This elf sees horrible things: parents throwing diapers, fighting, cursing and threatening children. After watching a mother shake her child into smiling for the camera, the elf delivers one of the play’s most poignant lines: “It’s not about the child or Santa or Christmas or anything but the parents’ idea of a world they cannot make work for them.” Where is peace and good will toward men?

Sedaris and Mantello’s script is a series of vignettes as Crumpet recounts different jobs he performs in SantaLand as time marches closer to Christmas. Some of the transitions feel jumpy, but then the writing is mimicking a diary. Not all of the segments work. The moment where the elf fake-signs to deaf children falls flat, but the Santa/Satan bit was very well done.

The writers bring us to one meaningful moment toward the end where we meet a Santa who makes an impact on visiting families and softens the heart of Crumpet. This could have made a lasting impression, but Sedaris and Mantello opted for an empty ending.

After his last day, finally feeling a bit of spirit, the elf says goodbye to one of his managers who is chewing out a customer. He flees. Perhaps that is the message: Protect your giving spirit and run from those who would soil it.

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