By Ron Fassler
In over a half-century of theatergoing, I have become somewhat fearful of one person shows. Prolific due to their budget-friendly conceits, they are more often than not a chore to sit through; the worst of them are self-indulgent and stretch a story too thin by half. But once in a blue moon, an actor comes along paired with something eminently stage worthy and the results are dazzling and, I’m happy to report, one is available for viewing online right now. It is the actor Jefferson Mays portraying fifty (50!) characters in a one-person production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which he has adapted with his longtime collaborator Susan Lyons (also his wife), and director Michael Arden. These three, aided immeasurably by designer Dane Laffrey, have managed to turn the beloved tale of a long night of ghostly visitations upon the despicable miser Ebenezer Scrooge into something bold, fresh and exciting. Delving deeply into the theatricality of this Christmas Carol make what these collaborators have achieved a damn near perfect production.
No stranger to one person plays, Mays won a 2004 Tony Award as Best Actor for I Am My Own Wife (which itself won a Tony winner for Best Play as well as a Pulitzer Prize for playwright Douglas Wright). In it, Mays not only played a prim 65-year-old real-life East German transvestite—a prominent participant of the underground gay scene in East Berlin of post-war Germany—but thirty additional roles as well. May’s wondrous work caused many to wonder “who was this thirty-eight-year-old actor at long last making his Broadway debut?”
Now, sixteen years later, Jefferson Mays is the veteran of six more Broadway shows and the recipient of two more Tony Award nominations, one of which again required playing multiple roles (the 2013 Best Musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder). This latest Herculean effort with Christmas Carol was one he first performed in Los Angeles two years ago. In a newly staged version for the cameras, it was shot in New York City less than five weeks ago, mainly to raise much-needed funds for a spate of endangered regional theatres across the country, ailing due to the pandemic-related shut down. It is available to view online at a cost far less than you would pay to see it on Broadway (where it most certainly will sometime in the future be staged as a special Christmas event). Details on it may be viewed here: www.achristmascarollive.com.
Before Broadway beckoned sixteen years ago, Mays self-deprecatingly referred to himself as “Reggie Regional,” and for good reason. His training in comedies, dramas and musicals at theatres around the country has created an actor well suited to Dickens. Like many a great British actor, Mays has reserves of technique at his fingertips, most especially with the use of his voice. The way he holds on to certain vowel sounds is, frankly, thrilling and are in full service to Dickens’ superb writing. These characters are not merely a meal for an actor, but an enormous feast.
Serving as Narrator throughout, Mays turns on a dime to constantly reveal new characters, doing so with such specific physicality, demeanor, voice and thought that you never have a second’s trouble wondering who is who. That even goes for the Christmas dinner sequence at the home of the Cratchit family, with his benevolent Bob Cratchit, the blunt Mrs. Cratchit and their four rambunctious children (including, of course, Tiny Tim) played with enormous charm and vigor. All of this is done on a dark stage (curtains and footlights in plain sight to see) aided by numerous bits of scenery and projections. Laffrey’s design is simple and ingenious. The lighting by Ben Stanton, along with highly effective projections by Lucy MacKinnon, are first rate, as is the sound by Joshua D. Reid. And it wasn’t until the credits rolled that I was aware how much music Sufjan Stevens composed for the piece. So seamlessly threaded and vital to the performance, it never overwhelms nor impedes on the action.
Michael Arden, who has been twice nominated for Best Director Tonys (the revivals of Spring Awakening and Once on This Island), is one of the best working in the theatre today. This makes three excellent shows in a row for him and each mark not only diversity in style and tone, but a consistency in terms of an innovative and clear vision. It makes me yearn to see what he will do next, hopefully with an original property.
One last thing by way of an anecdote I uncovered from an interview Mays did with the Hartford Courant in 2004 on the subject of his upbringing is worth repeating, as it bears directly on a full circle journey for him:
“We didn’t have a TV,” says Mays. “It fell off a table when the basset hound ran under it, got caught in the cable, and it got smashed. We never really replaced it. I think someone out of pity gave us one, but we didn’t use it much. Instead of TV, we would read aloud to each other after dinner, passing a book of Dickens and such around. I think that was my first theatrical experience. All my happiest memories of growing up have to do with books and my parents’ reading to me and me, reading to them.”
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was done live onstage October 28, 2020 at the United Palace in New York. It is available for pay-per-view streaming now through January 3, 2021. For tickets and information go to: www.achristmascarollive.com
Photos Courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live