The SantaLand Diaries & A Christmas Memory

Portland Center Stage, 1111 SW Broadway, 274-6588, Tues-Wed 7 pm, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm, $12-47

T hose who have read David Sedaris' marvelous Christmas short story, The SantaLand Diaries, will never forget the experience. The tale of a 33-year-old unemployed gay writer (probably Sedaris himself) who applies to work as an elf at SantaLand in New York's downtown Macy's is funny enough in its own right. But Sedaris' voice takes it to a whole new level. It is a voice of cynical incredulity. Baffled yet unrelentingly caustic, Sedaris transforms Macy's SantaLand into a Winter hellhole; a cesspool of urinating children, brawling parents, green-striped tights, flirtatious tease elves named Snowball, and crazed Santas who wave and sing Christmas carols when nobody's in the room. It's all uproariously funny.

It is Sedaris' voice, or lack thereof, that winds up being the downfall of Portland Center Stage's one-man production of The SantaLand Diaries. Not only is Sedaris' voice completely absent from Steve Wilkerson's performance as the hapless elf, but Wilkerson actually dumbs down the original character, turning him from a jaded Everyman to an obnoxious clown. He dances, he prances, he does funny voices, and watching him one can't help but feel that were Sedaris in attendance, he would be more than a little embarrassed.

To give Wilkerson some credit, he's only doing his job as an actor, which is to make Sedaris' story more "theatrical." But what makes the protagonist of Diaries so hilarious is how un-theatrical he is. He is a tiny straight man rolling in a great sea of theatrical characters. To make him a "character" himself is to cheapen the impact of everything around him.

Wilkerson's cheesy style works better for the sappier A Christmas Story, based on Truman Capote's short story about a little boy and his elderly friend as they celebrate Christmas together. For most of the play Wilkerson just stands in the middle of the stage and talks with great pathos. It's basically effective, but one could also read the original story at the library and get the same effect. In fact, both these stories are better off in the narrative form than in the theatrical form. That's why they were written as short stories and not as plays. JUSTIN SANDERS