The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, adapted by Joe Mantello. Directed by Tony Simotes.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman ( ♦♦♦♦♦ )
Winkles as Crumpet; photo: Kevin Sprague
"Remember. . .youíre not Santaís slave."
When Shakespeare and Company gives the neighborhood a gift it goes all out to make it a memorable one. This year it is Ryan Winkles, wrapped in a ribbon and tied in a bow. Playing the un-named David Sedaris, he tells the tale of that authorís once-in-a-lifetime experience working at Macyís Department Store in the Santaland exhibit as an elf named Crumpet. If you know the book, or have heard Sedaris on the radio, or saw the production last year with Peter Davenport then the surprise quotient will be somewhat lower than optimal. However, seeing Winkles in the role adds a great deal that is special and quantitatively rewarding.
Here is an actor who can do the silliness with greater credibility than most. His roles in Lenox for this company have often been silly, foppish, over-the-top adolescents who are coming to grips with the realities of love or loss. In his broader moments here, as Crumpet dealing with manic parents or bizarre children or loopy Santas, he is delicious and funny. When he is adult David preparing for his soon to start holiday party he is precious, a bit gay but more than bright about his place in the world.
The best word to describe his efforts here is simply this: sophisticated. Ryan Winkles is sophisticated in his approach to this multi-layered role. What he gives to his audience is a sense of true surprise, true delight and true peppermint candy. You forget that he is playing a role, for he has become the person he wants us to believe him to be. His work is so uncomplicated that the very ease of his performance, the naturalness he brings to it, leaves us feeling like the early arrivals the script has him tell us we are. We are at his party and he is amusing us while putting the finishing touches on his apartment.
The story is inane. Being so, it is also factual and real. The actor, under the careful and specific instructions of his director, Tony Simotes, creates that reality on what is clearly a stage set. When he comments on the snow and there is no snow ( I assume something went wrong in the special effects department ) there somehow is snow. His honesty allows us to see what isnít there. And he does this with the many characters who spin through his tale.
These two men make us understand more about Crumpet the Elf just by showing us a stage reality that cannot be produced in any other format. One set by Patrick Brennan, two costumes by Govane Lohbauer, straightforward lighting by Stephen Ball and the occasional appearance by a maid, uncredited in the program but presumably the stage manager Hope Rose Kelly, are all it takes for the magic to work as Winkles woos his audience and makes the fantasy/reality into the real.
Do yourself a favor and buy into the package that waits to be opened before your eyes for you. It is, as said, a gift. That gift is Ryan Winklesí own gift and heís sharing it with us.
Santaland Diaries plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare and Company campus in Lenox, MA through December 30. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353.