“Marley was dead, to begin with.”
That opening line always gives me the chills, and never more so than in this one-man (plus spooky specter) show featuring that consummate artist of many voices and lightning-quick changes, Jefferson Mays. Although the much-lauded actor has played countless roles in every medium known to mortals, he is perhaps most fondly remembered for his quicksilver stage performance in “I Am My Own Wife,” in which he gave a dazzling solo turn and for which he won a Tony Award. Here, in his tour-de-force performance in “A Christmas Carol,” he plays more than 50 characters from Charles Dickens’ beloved holiday classic — including the London fog.
In an inspired teaser, director Michael Arden and his virtuoso design team initially confront the audience with a coffin, imposing on its bier, framed by an emerald green curtain and drenched in a light of the same dense hue. Once we have contemplated that tableau and its chilling intimations of mortality, a solitary figure in a black frock coat identified as “the Mourner” materializes to deliver that killer opening line.
Indeed, Jacob Marley is “dead as a doornail,” but that mean old miser has had the decency to rise from the grave, winding cloth trailing from his rotting corpse, to warn his longtime business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, of the consequences of his avaricious ways. Mays, of course, plays all the characters (and occasional inanimate objects) who appear in this lean and fit adaptation that he himself wrote with his wife, Susan Lyons, and Arden.
The moans and groans and occasional shrieks of Marley’s ghost are especially unnerving, and make us marvel at Scrooge’s bloody-minded refusal to heed its warnings and reform his own selfish ways. The old skinflint treats this awesome specter with the same disdain he shows his nephew, his clerk, and any of the London neighbors rash enough to wish him a merry Christmas — a courtesy that evinces a resounding “Bah! Humbug!”
The wonderful words, as written, come from Dickens, arguably the greatest storyteller in the English language. (Witness his initial description of Scrooge as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner… and solitary as an oyster.”) When this master verbalist was crafting his novels, he was also very consciously writing for the stage: His own exhaustive American reading tours nearly killed him, but they did make him a fortune. So the show’s creators didn’t have to twist himself into knots to make this novel adaptation stageworthy.
The staging, in fact, is mainly smoke and mirrors — that is to say, ingenious lighting (by Ben Stanton, in superlative form) and sound design (Joshua D. Reid, ditto). If there’s an overall vibe to the production, it’s “elegantly spooky.” (The show originated at the Geffen, so there’s history behind the silken stagecraft.)
Some familiarity with this classic Victorian novel would be a big help in distinguishing the many characters who shoulder their way into the story. Mays actually makes an endearing joke about this, in an enchanting scene set at generous old Mr. Fezziwig’s Christmas Ball. Momentarily playing Mr. Fezziwig himself, he surveys the dizzy whirl of his own party, trying to distinguish one pretty party guest from another. To top himself, Mays then proceeds to portray the party guests themselves.
For all its dizzying charms, the overstuffed show doesn’t quite deliver on what really counts — the three Spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future, as they conjure up visions to terrify Scrooge into changing his parsimonious ways. Here the individual spirits don’t really come alive (ahem), and their visions feel rushed on and off the stage.
I can’t help wondering how Dickens the performer managed to breathe life into the characters created by Dickens the novelist. (They say he waved his arms a lot and became quite bombastic.) Mays does none of that corny stuff, but for all the theatrical magic he makes on his own, he really could use a bit more help.