FAT MAN CRYING at Minneapolis Theater Garage through December 23 612.280.9210
I'll admit to a generalized foreboding heading into Fat Man Crying, knowing it was the story of a woeful St. Nick. Images of Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa played in my head—the besotted and generally malevolent department-store Santa who was pretty funny until, you know, he was no longer very funny at all. So my pleasure was all the greater once I settled in to this finely pitched comedy, which neither celebrates the holiday's saccharine charms nor has a cynical bone to pick. The action revolves around a newly married husband and wife played by Joseph Scrimshaw (who writes and directs) and Alayne Hopkins. She's an artsy type, while he's the sort of unimaginative pragmatist whose perfect gift at age seven was a day planner (when Hopkins evokes the wonder of mystery, Scrimshaw proclaims it "a romantic word for ignorance"). Their cozy Christmas Eve is interrupted by the arrival of Santa (Tim Uren) through their apartment window. It turns out the fat man has lost his holiday mojo due to the magic-sucking, awesome lameness of a guy named Dave, whom Santa curses while calling for a glass of Scotch. Scrimshaw panics and calls the cops, while Hopkins defuses the situation and buys into the mystical wonder of it all— until Santa starts revealing her uncomfortable secrets. Scrimshaw's dialogue is consistently funny, and his script turns on little twists such as his own character's unlikely status as "the nicest guy in the world" (he wryly observes how low the bar must be set for the rest of humanity). Uren's Santa is appropriately put-upon and weary, though he gets riled up in the second act, which involves a gun, a great sight gag emerging from Santa's bag, and the arrival of the dread Dave (Joshua Scrimshaw). By the time we're done, we've settled up a marriage and evoked the racist Yuletide imagery of Northern Europe (it's all true; for a time I had a Christmas candy decanter from Holland that could have been designed by David Duke). But there's nothing mean here, or petty, or sentimental, for that matter. Instead we have a smart, well-crafted diversion—a holiday from the holidays, really.