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Santaland Diaries

Santaland Diaries
Zach Scott Theatre, Austin, Texas
11 December 2004

This Grinch is stealing Christmas
(read no further if you want to keep yours safe)

Okay, i try not to give bad reviews. If i think something is that bad i simply don't recommend it or leave it off my favored lists, and waste no time spewing about garbage. There are occasional exceptions - this is one. And the fact that this is a scorching review has less to do with the actual performance than with the situation.

For years i have been watching the abundant reviews and ads for Santaland Diaries at Zach Scott Theatre in Austin. I have often been tempted to drive down just for the show - the reviews are that salivating. But i never managed to make it - the season being what it is. Then one of my favorite Austin actors Martin Burke, the star of SD, bowed out this year to another favorite Austinite of mine, Rob Williams, to even more wildly loving reviews.

I was in Austin for a tight series of interviews and auditions and, while eating across the street from the theatre a couple of hours pre-show, realized i had enough of a gap to catch the show. I quickly sketched out an itinerary, and then headed across Lamar to get a ticket to assure i could get in.

Brief interlude - i am big on privacy, rebelling more and more lately against the onslaught of information prying that goes on daily around us, to us. Why does everyone need so much information? Greed. Now back to our regularly scheduled review.

I approach the Zach box office and say i'd like a ticket for the 5:00 show. Before i could reach into my pocket i was asked for my name. I gave it, but as i was spelling it realized that i really didn't want to be doing so. I know now i shouldn't have. Then i was asked for my phone number. I was silent a moment and then said, “i don't have a phone,” which is the truth, but which answer i would have given even were it a lie. A lady sitting in the box office then turned to me and said, across the room, “Sir, we have to have your phone number,” thereby accusing me of lying (which was okay since i gladly would've lied anyway, but somewhat unsettling nonetheless). “Why would you need my phone number?” i said. “So we can get hold of you in case there is a problem with the show,” she said, lying again. My willing dispersal of my phone number is a license for them to sell me something - probably season tickets. I said, “You know, i drove 2 ½ hours to get here, i'm in town for other reasons and just thought i'd see a show. I just want a ticket. . . (thinking pause) . . . The show is a little over two hours off, and you'll call me if there's a problem?” “Well, sir, if  there is a problem we need to get hold of you.” “Well, i don't have a phone, which i told you a second ago, no home phone, no cell phone. I do have a work number, but i don't feel it's right to give you that because it's not mine.” “Well, we'll need an email address then.” “An email address? You know what, i'm not going to drive home, 2 ½ hours away, to check my email, and then drive back here, another 2 ½ hours, and be here in time for a show that's about 2 hours away.”

I think she must have sensed that i was about to grab my money back (which i had handed over in the course of the inquisition) and they would lose out on my cash - they are after all a mercenary operation, and she said, knowing they (like all modernly greedy theaters) have a no-refund policy if something should go wrong and they had to cancel the show and i failed to make it home to check my email - she said, “Okay, we'll sell you a ticket, but you have to understand where we're coming from.”

Well, no i don't, and sorry it was such a painful moment for you. What it is, is just plain stupid. What a good little obedient theatre should do is realize they are in the entertainment business, that they are trying to show people a good time. More than any advertising or word of mouth or unsolicited email or season-ticket-panhandling phone calls, what makes people come to the theatre is the enjoyment they have had before.

And mine was ruined for the day.

I spent the next two hours getting more and more incensed over what had transpired. So much so that i already knew that if either of those people were around, if i saw either of them point me out to someone else, as in “That's the guy,” if there were even the tiniest provocation i would make a scene in that theatre they would never forget. I don't know if i'm a good actor, but i make a good scene. Ask me about it some time.

Luckily, i simply fumed through the show, looking for things to gripe about (and there was plenty).

So, you see my review is more about the theatre. Here's the first of the constructive notes that should always accompany a “professional” review. If the theatre insists on asking for people's names so they can bombard them with solicitations, then fine, do so, do it politely and nicely. Most people these days are oblivious to where all their names show up. Indeed, some people would die to be on Zach Scott's list. But not me. So, if someone says politely and nicely back “no thank you” then there should be no more talk, the cashier hits a nice little default key, hands over the tickets, and everyone is happy. The current homeland security style makes for a bitter patron.

So let's move on. This is a professional theatre. That means people are paid for their performances, and that costs money. Crew costs money. Everything costs money. So expect to pay. I can't say i was overwhelmed by buying a $40 ticket. I had noted in the ads that tickets were $28-40, so i assumed that only good front-area tickets remained. I did the old internal math thing about “How does someone with a family do this kind of Christmas merriment?” But it was not my worry.

Then i got seated. Back row, next to the aisle (maybe that was the premium, just in case i had to upchuck?). I now realized the $28 tickets were for children under 3 and the deaf-blind.

This is theatre in the round too, so i should be treated to it from different angles, at least a fourth of the time directed at me, which ought to make at least $10 of my $40 good for something.

Now, here's where things can get tangled in the review process, and i want to be sure i cover the angles so that i'm fair, and you can judge for yourself. The “show” lasted about an hour and a half. A little on the slim side timewise for a mainstage production, a $40 mainstage production, but i've been entertained for that long and felt fulfilled.

Except that, and some people may not beef at this, the real “show” - that is Santaland Diaries by Dave Sedaris - the show i came to see was 42 minutes long. How, you may ask, do i know this? Well, because when the “show” had been going on for 30+ minutes and there was still no sign of Santaland Diaries i pulled out my watch specifically to time the show (see, i had read in the Chronicle that it was an hour and a half show, and i started to wondering . . .). So i timed it - 42 minutes. The “show” therefore missed qualifying by two minutes for a UIL high school One-act Play. For $40.

Oh yeah, there was another 38 minutes of “show” but this is what it was: Meredith McCall singing a few Christmas carol parodies, followed by Rob Williams doing his world-famous making-a-bologna-sandwich-with-my-feet routine (eat that . . .), followed by the prelude to the “show,” a song about masturbation by McCall (who sings beautifully about the wonderful things she can do by hand, while Jason Connor tickles her ivories) that apparently had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas (and was, in fact, pretty much a ripoff of the slam piece “I Am Stalking Myself”). All of this takes place with the actors' backs to me - in fact, the bologna piece i had to watch via overhead projector, which is just as well -- lucky the aisle seat for me. Oh yeah, as you can tell, i was getting in the Christmas mood by then.

So the show starts, i'm quite fully ticked off by now, and in comes Rob Williams, again actually, but sans bologna and pickles this time. Perhaps with a more pleasantly set up experience i might have enjoyed his performance more. He is quite the manic little elf, his delivery is choice, and he plays the yucks well, ad-libbing as necessary. My complaint is that the set is little more than the radio piece as originally done by author Sedaris. That it's delivered in its entirety to the audience, with Williams assuming his own persona in place of Sedaris, rather punctuates this. Is it funny? Yes. Is it Christmasy? Yes. Is it redemptive? Well, not that it has to be, but yes it is. But outside of the singular joy of watching Williams flitter about there is no overriding reason for it to be performed on a stage. More enjoyable? Yes. But more enjoyable for 42 minutes at nearly $1 a minute, no.

Did i mention that McCall at one point comes out the door next to me in the aisle, and the follow spot includes me, and that it is so bright i can't quite gather what's going on, don't know for a moment that she's there next to me, that i'm suddenly lost in that glaring spot with the entire, packed place looking at . . . me? or at least me too? That i feel silly looking at her, so i just sit there staring out. That i wanted to jump up and say, “Hey did any of you other folks hand over your name and phone number to these blokes, and still give them $40 -- or did you guys get a $12 discount for the personal info?” But i didn't. I just took that humiliation the way i'd taken everything else that day . . . and vowed i'd never return.