Newly Reviewed: The Santaland Diaries, at the Tower Grove Abbey

The Santaland Diaries It'd be easy to dismiss Joe Mantello's adaptation of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries as cynical and anti-Christmas; the stories our former Macy's elf (Ben Watts) tells us about dealing with the public are horrible and paint us as greedy, grasping, unthinking and just plain mean. But the Elf isn't opposed to any of that; what he's really against is "the grinding enthusiasm that Santa is asking for." Watts hilariously illustrates this disconnect between the "season of giving" concept and the way society forces us to celebrate-it-or-else. His elf is a bemused observer, simultaneously thrilled by the awful things people do in the name of Christmas cheer and horrified by the spiritual callousness they display as they do them. Under Gary F. Bell's direction, Watts channels Jersey mooks, creepy department-store Santas and bitchy mothers with wit and a physical grace; these aren't impersonations, they're personas he creates through voice and physical gesture. It's his ability to become each person and then shrug them off that makes Santaland Diaries not merely eminently entertaining, but genuinely affecting as well. You'll laugh a lot, and you'll leave feeling the need to tip the next department-store worker you meet — or at least stifle any complaints about the length of the line. Presented by Stray Dog Theatre through December 17 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. Tickets are $20 ($18 for students and seniors). Call 314-865-1995 or visit www.straydogtheatre.org. (PF)

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