'Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol': Theater Review

Chris Whitaker
Jefferson Mays in 'Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol'
You've seen it before, but not like this.
12/16/2018

Tony winner Jefferson Mays delivers an epic one-man show, embodying 50 distinct characters in this stunning adaptation directed by Michael Arden of the seasonal classic .

Jefferson Mays made his Broadway debut in 2003, playing 37 characters in the solo drama I Am My Own Wife, which won him the Tony Award for best actor in a play. It was 10 years before he received his second nomination, for A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, in which he played nine members of the D’Ysquith family. A third nomination followed for his work in Oslo, which featured him in only one role, mathematically reducing him to mere mortal.

Lon Chaney Sr. was called "the man of a thousand faces," but Mays outdoes him in what can accurately be described as an epic one-man show, the world premiere of a new adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. In it, he plays 50 distinct characters, no doubt a record of some kind, but nothing compared to what must amount to 50,000 cues contrived for him by director Michael Arden in this fleshed-out production that represents a personal best for both.

Mays, who is currently onscreen in the new Coen brothers movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, co-wrote the play with his wife, Susan Lyons, and actor turned director Arden, whose immersive production of Once on This Island won a Tony this year for best revival of a musical. They based their text on a similarly abridged version Dickens himself used for public readings starting in 1848 and performed 127 times before his death in 1870. Countless film and television adaptations of the seasonal classic have been presented over the years, but Patrick Stewart's critically lauded recurring one-man show has been the predominant stage iteration in recent decades.

Where Stewart interpreted the text and mimed the panoply of Dickens' characters and their environments, the new production uses light and shadow to mask set changes, and vocal distortion to augment Mays' character transformations. Recoiling in fear, he reclines in lighting designer Ben Stanton's warm amber glow as Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. Leaning forward with chin held high, Mays lands in ghoulishly green light, recasting him as Marley's ghost.

So much is happening at any given moment, were the stage illuminated it would no doubt appear a mess. But as Scrooge spends much of the time lit by a single candle, we are instead pleasantly surprised to find a staircase has ascended for him to climb, or a warehouse has materialized, with projection designer Lucy Mackinnon's nostalgic, painterly images of the Fezziwig family Christmas party filling the windows upstage as Scrooge longingly looks on. The mood is crystallized by Sufjan Stevens’ accompanying song, reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated track, "Mystery of Love," from last year’s Call Me by Your Name.

Nearly as vivid as Mays' multitudinous interpretations is the author’s prose describing Scrooge’s one-time employer: "Old Fezziwig laid down his pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of 7. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice: Yo ho, there! Ebenezer! Dick!"

The visit to Bob Cratchit's Christmas party is warm but dutifully played, slowing the tempo and perhaps running a tad long. But it serves as a welcome respite from sound designer Joshua D. Reid's thrashing effects, slightly overused in the beginning of the play to underscore the chains binding Jacob Marley.

The Ghost of Christmas to Come, Mays' own shadow, morphs to supernatural proportions behind him. In another moment it appears in dark drapery, a towering chimera floating across the floor on a revolving turntable used for scene changes throughout. The spirit returns us to Cratchit's home, where Mays delivers a devastating performance as a father mourning the loss of his son, Tiny Tim. The scene is deftly painted in two strokes: an empty chair in the corner and Tim's unused crutch leaning nearby.

Although Christmas was a subject on which Dickens had previously written (A Christmas Dinner and The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, part of his 1836 novel The Pickwick Papers), the author is said to have been inspired to write A Christmas Carol after a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School for street children. He first published the text in London in 1843, a time of Yuletide transition where revived customs such as caroling were regaining popularity, and new customs, like the Christmas tree, introduced decades earlier, were fashionable again.

Arden, a two-time Tony nominee for Spring Awakening and Once on This Island, last worked in Los Angeles on the Hollywood Bowl production of Annie. He has a special attachment to A Christmas Carol, given that it was the first play in which he was cast, at the age of 10, appearing as Tiny Tim in a Midland, Texas, production. His work here represents a towering technical achievement, coordinating constant scenic and lighting changes, ghostly smoke, projections and sound effects with Mays’ equally descriptive performance.

Dickens reportedly wrote the novella over six weeks starting in October, coincidentally fitting our own modern holiday calendar. As a ghost story, A Christmas Carol is appropriate for Halloween, while its themes of gratitude align with Thanksgiving, and the title and setting make it an obvious Yuletide tale. So, yes, early November is the perfect time to revisit this timeless fable. And in the hands of Mays and Arden, it is as surprising and exquisite as a gift beneath the tree.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Jefferson Mays
Director: Michael Arden
Playwrights: Jefferson Mays, Susan Lyons, Michael Arden, based on the novella by Charles Dickens
Set and costume designer: Dane Laffrey
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Joshua D. Reid
Projection designer: Lucy Mackinnon
Spectral visualization: Matt Wool
Music: Sufjan Steven
Presented by Geffen Playhouse