NEW YORK, NY.-
Has Jefferson Mays ever met a role or a root vegetable that he hesitated to take on? In the noisy, excitable one-man version of A Christmas Carol on Broadway, in a production that opened Monday at the Nederlander Theater, Mays stars as Ebenezer Scrooge, spirits of Christmas, assorted Cratchits, street folk, partygoers. He even plays a boiling potato, straining against a pot lid. At the festive board, Mays is side dish, main course, everything.
Creepy and antic, gloomy and giddy, Michael Ardens production capitalizes on every trick in Charles Dickens story and then pulls a few new ones out of Scrooges top hat. Peace on Earth? Mercy mild? Please. There are moments when you would swear that Mays couldnt possibly be unaccompanied, so raucous is this Carol. But he is, more or less. (Danny Gardner briefly joins as a wordless specter.) Happily, Mays who has also triumphed in multiple roles in I Am My Own Wife, for which he won a Tony Award, and A Gentlemans Guide to Love and Murder is a master of manifold parts. If he were left alone, without lights, sound, projections or Dane Laffreys curving, swerving set, he might put across this fable even more convincingly.
Dickens story was last seen on Broadway in 2019, in a production that had originated in London at the Old Vic. That version wasnt perfect. (Jack Thorne wrote a script freighted with his usual psychologizing.) But under Matthew Warchus direction, that version emphasized community, how we might all join together actors, audience members, even the people in the cheap seats to furnish the holiday table. The show emphasized giving and receiving, literalizing the storys message of generosity and care.
This Carol, adapted by Mays, Arden and Mays wife, actress Susan Lyons, and live-captured for streaming two years ago, is a lonelier affair. The script hews closely to the version that Dickens himself toured, with passages of prose narration that cut the goose-fat sentimentality with keen wit and gimlet detail. The broad outlines remain familiar: On Christmas Eve, Scrooge, an ungenerous money lender, is visited by several spirits who help him to understand the boy he was, the man he became and the ways in which his miserliness may reverberate into the future. Its a kind of spectral exposure therapy. And fast-acting, too. A lone night cures him. In place of a communal gathering, we have one mans journey toward self-actualization. Scrooge, at last, becomes an integrated person.
Can we say the same of Mays, a man who makes multiple personalities seem like a boon rather than a disorder? He has always been a performer of incandescence and originality. His red-cheeked flame typically burns too bright for realism, although he does sometimes adapt to a slightly lower voltage, as in the fact-based political drama Oslo. With his wide forehead and a broad, elastic face, he is an actor of unusual precision, but theres a vein of waywardness to him, too, a wildness only barely contained. He can sketch a character lightly, with only a half turn and a flutter of his lashes, or debauch himself in orgies of gesture and expression. Rarely can he leave the set or props alone. Cutlery, curtains, the belt of his dressing gown: He makes exuberant use of them all.
The production, conceived by Arden and Laffrey, magnifies that exuberance. Reviewing the 2020 streaming version, Jesse Green described it as vastly effective as spooky entertainment. And it is. But in person rather than on screen, the eerie production elements often overwhelm. It begins with a fog-shrouded coffin and then a thunderclap an abrupt sound effect that set many in the audience laughing. It also frightened a baby that some parent had unwisely brought. (This is not that kind of A Christmas Carol. Leave the babies and the under-12s at home.) The baby screamed so lustily that I missed a lot of the first scene and then had to race to catch up, so swiftly did Mays move through the text, sometimes narrating, sometimes embodying.
And yet the design outpaces him. Ben Stantons lighting, flashy and subdued, bathes the stage in crepuscular tones. Joshua D. Reids sound design, some of it effective, much of it redundant, rarely ceases. Lucy Mackinnon supplies both highly original production design, like a flash of a ghostly horse, and superfluous embellishments, like a video of party guests glimpsed through a window. (The hair, wig and makeup design are by Cookie Jordan, but as with Laffreys costumes, they are barely visible in the murk.) Laffreys set is a whirling turntable. Several turntables? Beds, banquets, staircases and cemeteries swing in and out of view Victoriana at a gallop and a risk for anyone inclined toward motion sickness.
This Carol is a breathless entertainment. Is breathing such a bad thing? It might have been nice to have had more respite to appreciate Mays closefisted Scrooge, his liberal Cratchit and sweet Fan. But even at this velocity Mays must run miles each show he manages to particularize each of the Cratchit children and most of the guests at the Christmas party of Fred, Scrooges nephew. At the curtain call, Mays appears spent, but also deeply contented. Like Scrooge, he has had his catharsis and a workout besides. He can rest merry. The rest of us can escape to the relative quiet of Times Square.
A Christmas Carol
Through Jan. 1 at the Nederlander Theater, Manhattan; achristmascarollive.com. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times