THE SEASON'S longest running morality play -- A Visit With Saint Nick -- is now playing at a shopping mall near you.

The real star of the show -- Santa Claus himself -- waits in the wings until he makes his entrance on December 24. Meanwhile, his understudies are getting their big breaks, and Santa Claus is a dream gig for an understudy. You've got a guaranteed run, and you usually play to a packed house with long lines. You're the star, and even if your beard looks fake, the audience willingly suspends disbelief.

On the other hand, it's a challenging role. You don't just read a script -- you've got to ad lib. The kids on your lap throw more curve balls than cues, and if your lines don't come from the heart, they're going to fall flat.

With versions of this show playing all around the beltway and beyond, it wasn't possible for us to review every starring Santa. But here's a weekend's worth of Santa-hopping, notes from an odyssey that took us to Maryland, Virginia and the District and from Santas who rated only a HO-HUM to one who easily earned the highest accolade: HO HO HO.

MAZZA GALLERIE --

5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW. The Christmas colors here are pink and white. Pale pink silken banners hang from above, and white trees, decorated by various embassies, ring the mall. White trees, with pink-and-white wrapped presents under them, also form a backdrop for Santa's sleigh.

This is a Santa who doesn't need a pretty set. He is, refreshingly, an older man, with twinkling eyes behind granny glasses and a little rouge augmenting his natural ruddiness.

"Have you been good?" he asked, and he really listened to the answers. He seemed to enjoy children and laughed with them the way a "right jolly old elf" should. He didn't give out any little presents but the proceeds from the photos go to help deaf people, in the true spirit of Christmas. We gave this Santa a rave review: HO HO HO. Saturdays and Sundays 1 to 5; Dec. 21, 22 and 23, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

GEORGETOWN PARK --

3222 M St. NW. Victorian cherubs are the motif at Georgetown Park. They hang from the ceiling and adorn the giant tree. Santa, who sits in a sleigh in an obscure corner of the mall, seems almost like an afterthought to this carefully orchestrated decor. He was a young man, nicely rouged, with twinkling eyes and a luxuriant crimson velvet suit. And, although Mazza Gallerie's Santa was a hard act to follow, this Santa tried hard, promising the children to "see what he could do" and attempting a rather feeble ho-ho-ho.

For his affability, his costume and his make-up, we have him a coveted HO. Friday 4 to 8, Saturday noon to 8, Sunday noon to 6.

IVERSON MALL --

Marlow Heights, Md. The Christmas trees sparkled with tiny white lights, the presents were wrapped, and Santa sat in his sleigh, receiving young supplicants. He was young -- for a Santa -- but properly rounded, with a rich, full voice like an actor's. He looked children right in the eye and listened to them intently.

"Oh, yes, Gobots are neat," he said, sharing the enthusiasm of five-year-old Pope Barrow, who also requested a jeans jacket, a ski mask, a skateboard and a Transformer. "But have you been good? I only bring toys to good little girls and boys. Well, if you promise to be good for the rest of the year . . ."

Right there, this Santa met the essential requirements for a good Santa. He exhorted the kids to virtue -- this is, after all, a morality play -- but he made no specific promises. Unfortunately, this Santa was let down by the support crew. He needed a makeup artist. His eyes twinkled, but his cheeks weren't like roses nor his nose like a berry. But he scored well in the important ways, and we rated him a HO HO. Monday to Saturday 10 to 9, Sunday noon to 7.

SPRINGFIELD MALL --

Springfield, Va. "Look, there's where Santa might be!" yelled my daughter Charlotte, an experienced Santa visitor at 5, hurling herself in the direction of a white castle with Mickey Mouse in every parapet and window. Snow-covered Christmas trees with presents under them surrounded the castle, and Pluto and a few of the seven dwarfs cavorted in the yard.

There was already a short line at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, mainly of pretty little girls in velvet dresses waiting to have their pictures taken with Santa. This young Santa apparently had read Clement Moore's stage directions and knew where to put the rouge, though it was spotty and not expertly applied. He deserves credit for trying on the rouge, but he didn't take the time to establish any real rapport with the children, treating them like small photo props instead. He looked at Charlotte's list -- hastily compiled at a toy store in the mall -- and asked: "Promise to be real good?"

She got a coloring book just for promising, and Santa went on to the next photo opportunity. Definitely a HO-HUM Santa. Monday to Saturday 10 to 9, Sunday noon to 6.

POTOMAC MILLS MALL --

Woodbridge, Va. This mega-mall has a high-tech look, and Santa sat against a backdrop of a glacier dripping out of an industrial water tap. The theme, if there was one, was as electic as Christmas itself, with trees, presents, elves and gingerbread people surrounding Santa. Videos of your child's visit with Santa, VHS only, are available for $9.98.

We were prepared not to like this Santa, probably because we had to park so far away from the mall and because he seemed to be looking over the kids' shoulders as he talked to them. He needed rouge, and the fact that his beard covered too much of his face gave him a stiff, wooden look. But when we finally got to the head of the line, we were charmed. He was a young, good-ole-boy type Santa who was comfortable with kids and made them comfortable with him. He could trill a passable "ho-ho-ho" and, more important, he didn't shirk the tough questions.

"When you get done playing with your toys, do you put them away? Do you help your parents out? Do you go to bed when you're supposed to?"

Pretending to believe the answers, he told Charlotte that if she was "really, really good, I'll try to bring you some toys." As a downpayment, he gave her a plastic Santa Claus ring. We gave him a HO HO. Monday to Saturday 10 to 8, Sunday 11 to 6.

BALLSTON COMMON --

Arlington. This is a beautifully decorated mall, with a four-story Christmas tree adorned with burgundy, red and mauve ornaments. Santa, who sits on the top level of the mall in a gazebo made of white twigs, is pretty, too. He wears a wonderful "Father Christmas" robe of crimson velvet and a rakish holly wreath around his hat. Even the photographers wore crimson and green velvet jester costumes.

But the perfect set doesn't make up for a Santa who doesn't have his heart in the part. His "ho-ho-ho" and "Merry Christmas" sounded forced and, although there was no line to speak of, he didn't take time with his visitors.

"You didn't tell him what you wanted!" said Charlotte to her friend, six-year-old Elise Remington, who had shared Santa's lap on this visit. Well, Santa hadn't asked.

This Santa gives out kazoos, but, if you're lucky, your kids may lose them before you get to the car. Even without the kazoos we would have rated this Santo HO HUM. Monday to Saturday 10 to 8, Sunday noon to 5.

Anne H. Oman is co-author of Rainy Days, Sunny Days, Saturday's Child: Family Actiivites in Metropolitan Washington.