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'Diaries' shows cynical side of holidays

Thomas DeTrinis makes an excellent elf. And I'm not talking just any elf. DeTrinis re-creates to perfection that caustic mocker of an elf, Crumpet the Elf, the character that the delightfully twisted mind of satirist David Sedaris fashioned for Sedaris' 1992 National Public Radio piece called "The Santaland Diaries."

In a hilarious Irish Classical Theatre stage production of "The Santaland Diaries" adapted by Joe Mantello, DeTrinis projects the relaxed demeanor of a seasoned storyteller who happens also to be a confirmed cynic looking down on all commercialized Christmastime doings with a jaded eye.

The essential illusion here must be that the "elf" on stage has actually lived through these wacky encounters. Sedaris was recounting his real-life experience working as one of a revolting horde of "elves" employed by Macy's in Manhattan for the store's famously extravagant "Santaland." (The radio piece was to launch his career.) It's no good just to do a stand-up comic bit; the actor has to convey the sense that he has actually dealt with his ridiculous fellow elves (one who takes the job as a spiritual experience); Santas that can be incredibly curt or incredibly loving; ferocious, obscene or sweetly sentimental parents; and children who pee in the artificial snow banks, scream or simply suffer sad infirmities. DeTrinis does it all with graceful ease and great comic aplomb.

And he doesn't attempt to do that impossible thing: imitate Sedaris' distinctive comic voice. DeTrinis' cadences and vocal intonations are his own. He isn't quite as acerbic as Sedaris, and his Crumpet seems to be a touch less vicious than the original. This sense that Crumpet isn't mean through to the bone helps with some of the questionable stuff that Sedaris introduces -- like his references to the "seriously retarded" and to a pitiable child without a nose (who Crumpet hopes will not be asked what she wants for Christmas). Happily, DeTrinis comes off less brittle, slightly less cavalier about such uncomfortable things.

The production, decked out with a big Santa chair and Christmas tree, is co-directed by Lindsay Rogen and Dena Roncone in an admirably straightforward manner. Other than Tessa C. Lew's wonderfully ridiculous elf costume, the directors avoid all embellishments. No fancy stagework distracts; simple blackouts separate the segments. They allow DeTrinis -- who has done the show twice before with the directors -- to carry the show.

And carry he does. With his red bangs and long face, DeTrinis even manages to project a slightly elfish countenance. He is a joy to watch as he assaults the sugar-plum vision of Christmas and unearths the exploitive nature of the holiday in the bargain. He has a marvelous repertory of voices that he uses to great effect to render such things as the obscene remarks of one Brooklyn father in perfect accent, the tinny voices of assorted mothers, and the frenzied intonations of demanding shoppers.

"The Santaland Diaries" is the flip side of the Christmas so mawkishly portrayed in "It's a Wonderful Life." It is a hilarious antidote to the onslaught of bogus Christmas pageantry that infects the land at this time of year. If you are looking to displace this seasonal sappiness with some wicked fun, this is it.

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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Theater Review

"The Santaland Diaries"

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of four)

Presented by Irish Classical Theatre Company.

Continues Wednesday through Friday in Chris O'Neill Lounge of Andrews Theatre.

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