The Marvelous Mr. Mays – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, was Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Secret and self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” The play
The stage is pitch black. Narrator Jefferson Mays, also playing every role, speaks out of the dark. He lights a candle, then another. It’s Christmas Eve. Having lost his business partner Marley seven years ago, Ebenezer Scrooge has control over every cent. He employs only Bob Cratchit whose large family suffers for lack of sustenance while his clerk suffers for lack of office warmth and kindness. Scrooge begrudges Bob a day off, snaps at a cheerful invitation from nephew Fred, and rails at honorable men soliciting for charity. With a gesture, turn or tone, Mays distinctively becomes each character. The door is open to fog.
At home, the old man checks for intrusion and eats meager gruel before a fire. We glimpse a canopied bed, old wallpaper, and a desk. Marley’s ghost appears despite a double locked door. Light and sound create something otherworldly. The voice echoes upon itself. Every time the apparition moves (invisible) chains scrape and resonantly clang/drop. “You maybe an undigested bit of beef!” Scrooge tenuously protests. Marley roars. The air around him visibly undulates. Sound seems to come from all over the theater.
You know the story. Three spirits visit the bad tempered miser. Vapor, reverberation, and bells mark each arrival. Christmas Past appears genial. “Walk with me.” The two spiral through (projected) space (akin to down the rabbit hole). Scrooge lands at the imposing boarding school he attended as a lonely boy. His little sister comes to bring him home. Female voices are higher, softer, not stressed or camp. The girl will be Fred’s mother. A pang of guilt fights its way into consciousness. Snow falls.
Through a window we see those working for Old Fezziwig where Scrooge apprenticed as they prepare and enjoy largess at a lively holiday party. The protagonist’s keenly controlled shadow reflects now on a set wall, now on that of the theater. Mays describes the scene, gregariously handing a mug (of mulled wine) to an audience member. There’s muted music. He wants to stay.
When he observes his young self and former fiancé, her portrait hangs over the fireplace so we get feel for the lady’s presence. She’s graceful, well spoken, without malice. “I release you for the love of him you once were,” she says sadly, formalizing/sealing the solitary life he’d lead up till this night – with money his only mistress. The intrusion of a soft rock song, “Silver and gold/Everyone wishes for it…” cheapens the moment to Hallmark and yanks us away from history.
Christmas Present enters before an opulent backdrop set with tree, gifts, evergreens, and groaning board. Scrooge is taken to the Cratchit household where he watches the poor family, including crippled Tiny Tim, approach the holiday with gratitude and good hearts. “There never was such a goose!” When Bob’s wife enters with pudding, the audience practically glimpses that as well. Every child has their own attributes. The family’s accent is lower class. Mays switches speech with alacrity. Scrooge asks about Tim. “If these shadows are unaltered by the future, the child will die,” the spirit drones.
A visit to Fred’s festooned home reveals gaiety, games and dancing, even a toast to his uncle. Again Scrooge wants to linger. “Much they saw and far they went…” A “wretched” young boy and girl (articulated shadows) crawl out from beneath the spirit’s skirts. (Curiously unnamed here, they are Hunger and Indigence.) Beautifully manifest.
The unspeaking Christmas Future is a very tall, hulking creature first shadow, then fully if facelessly present, wearing torn black rags. Tim’s small crutches lean abandoned at the sad Cratchit hearth. On familiar streets, pitiless strangers gossip about the death of an elderly miser. A woman pillages the corpse’s home with the body still cold in bed. No one will mourn. Scrooge grasps it’s himself. He wakes.
The rest is happy reformation. Relief and joy are palpable. He whirls, jumps, and giggles when sending a child for the goose in a neighboring butcher’s window. The grand graveyard image (in snow) in which the spirit of Christmas Future usually shows Scrooge his headstone comes almost as an afterthought.
Adaptation is deft, economic, and unsentimental including Dickens’ entire story.
Jefferson Mays is a national treasure, an opinion I’ve held for some time. Here the mercurial actor plays dozens of roles, male and female, young and old, transforming from one to another with vocal and physical adjustments, never dropping a stitch. Scrooge’s rehabilitation is a gradual chipping away, beginning with small regrets, becoming revelations. Mays lectures, laughs, cries, trembles, and dances as if in real time. Here’s the Tony Award.
Director Michael Arden began his theatrical career playing Tiny Tim at age ten. This production is gifted with his love and respect. Not a move or gesture is gratuitous. Mays realistically utilizes the entire stage. Imaginative character depiction practically conjures its subjects. Pacing is astonishing. Aspiring directors take note – a master class.
Dane Laffrey (scenic design) has a painter’s eye. Both furnishings and architecture emerging (on a turntable) out of the dark (stairs are a wonderful surprise) and evocative constructions that fill the stage work splendidly to evoke mood, period, and moment. One picturesque memory is watched through windows. Mays’ costume is pitch perfect; that of Christmas Future chilling.
Ben Stanton’s evocative, often extremely subtle lighting creates and sustains specific atmosphere with a sure narrative hand. Stanton works symbiotically with skilled projection designer Lucy MacKinnon. (Images of Christmas Future are particularly unnerving.)
Creative sound design by Joshua D. Reid offers everything from hooves on the street and festive conversation to distortion of spirit voices and ominous, startling booms making one jump in one’s seat. The previously mentioned song is a single blatant mistake.
Some small amount of this review is garnered from a video of the production I saw November 2020. I recommend live theater. A grand way to greet the holidaze.
Photos courtesy of the production
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Performed by Jefferson Mays
Adapted by Jefferson Mays, Susan Lyons, Michael Arden
Production conceived by Michael Arden and Dane Laffery
Directed by Michael Arden
208 West 41st Street