Review: Jefferson Mays (and Jefferson Mays and Jefferson Mays) Dazzles in A Christmas Carol
The Tony-winning actor goes back to his roots in a filmed edition of his one-man take on Dickens.
Theater was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever, about that. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, theater was dead as a door-nail, leaving artists to pick up the pieces and figure out how to soldier on. Some have quit the profession altogether; some have done Zoom readings; others, like Jefferson Mays, Michael Arden, and Dane Laffrey, have not let 6-feet rules and limitations on gatherings get in their way.
Earlier this year, they and a camera crew gathered at the glittering United Palace Theater in Washington Heights to film Mays's just completely unbelievable solo take on A Christmas Carol, and it's now being disseminated as a benefit for dozens of regional playhouses closed down by the crisis. What a lovely yuletide present it is, even if it does feel more suited to Halloween.
Mays is no stranger to the "playing dozens of characters" life — his best-known turns came in I Am My Own Wife and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, where he skillfully glided through a torrent of roles, seemingly without taking a breath. A Christmas Carol, adapted by Mays, his wife, Susan Lyons, and director Arden, from both the Charles Dickens novella and Dickens's own solo performance text, is similar, but different. Over the course of 90 minutes, he essays more than 50 parts, including the narrator — indeed, this Christmas Carol is more dramatic reading than play — and on a very basic level, it's a feat of memorization. But it's also a feat of performance, an amazing character study at once tenderhearted and yet completely unsentimental when it comes to the mushy stuff.
That's because Arden and co-conceiver and designer Dane Laffrey have refashioned the work as a horror story. It makes sense when you look at the plot — Ebenezer Scrooge is haunted on Christmas Eve by ghosts from his past, present, and future, in an effort to get him to change his miserly ways — but most adaptations, theatrical or filmic, tend to veer toward the gooey side of things, emphasizing the struggle of Scrooge's employee, Bob Cratchitt, and his sickly son, Tiny Tim.
This take is filled with things that go bump in the night: clanking chains and sudden loud noises in Joshua D. Reid's sound design, menacing gothic walls that appear out of nowhere and heavy woolen garments in Laffrey's set and costumes, spectral projections by Lucy Mackinnon, and shadowy lighting by Ben Stanton that feels, even on screen, like the entire stage is being lit by a couple of candles. Together, they've all created the spookiest haunted house I've ever experienced, even sitting on my couch on a sunny Thursday afternoon in December. It's a marvel, too, when you look at it from a technical standpoint. Not only did they have to stage an astonishingly cue-heavy production, but they had to film it. It's beautifully rendered on screen by director of photography Maceo Bishop.
Mays is just incredible. It's one of those performances that you just have to see, and even then you won't believe that it's real. As an actor, he thrives on language, and he delivers Dickens's words with both reverence and youthful abandon, transforming himself before our eyes into each different character with a mere change in posture and inflection. He is a Scrooge whose life is obsessed with a fear of death, and a Tiny Tim whose spirit convinces him that we must live with kindness and generosity before its time to go.
This is a production that seems to be saying, "Be good. Live well. Don't let yourself be haunted by the memory of roads not taken." As we end a terrible year brimming with sudden losses, that reminder is the perfect takeaway.