Jefferson Mays Dominates a Dark Adaptation of Dickens Classic

There have been some very dark productions of “Macbeth” in New York City in the last few decades, but none of them were as dark as the new “A Christmas Carol” that opened Monday at Broadway’s Nederland Theatre after a production in Los Angeles.

By dark, I don’t mean grim, although the show is that when it needs to be. I mean no lighting or very little lighting. That overall darkness gets this production off to a terrific start when the theater is pitched into total blackness with an exciting bang. Slowly, very slowly, the lights come on when actor Jefferson Mays lights one candle after another to provide very faint illumination. It’s like that shark in “Jaws.” It’s best to give us only glimpses of this Scrooge and his dank environs before the ghost of Jacob Marley frightens the bejesus out of him, and us.

Mays plays more than 50 roles in the Charles Dickens classic about a heartless miser who learns belatedly to love Christmas. The actor has a couple of co-stars, however, and they are lighting designer Ben Stanton, who isn’t afraid to turn off the lights, and director Michael Arden, who doesn’t turn them back on except when absolutely necessary – and then, not much. Very gradually, we come to experience Dane Laffrey’s magnificent and constantly moving set that re-creates old London, complete with the almost impenetrable fog.

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This “Christmas Carol” comes to an early climax – perhaps too early for the show’s own good – when Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Marley, his old business partner in miserliness and nitpicking contempt for humanity. No two actors could achieve what Mays, Stanton and Arden offer up here: the suddenly meek and frightened Scrooge bathed in warm candle light one minute, the commanding and devouring Marley drenched in green stench only a second later. How can any “Christmas Carol” ever top that kind of theatrical tour de force?

The adaptation by Mays, Arden and Susan Lyons never quite rises to the terrifying depths of this encounter between Scrooge and Marley. The production continues to be worth watching, but the humbug curmudgeons in the audience might wonder if maybe, despite the show’s theme of stinginess, another actor or two could be hired to handle some of the lighter lifting of Dickens’ less indelible characters.

When Mays played Mayor Shinn in the current Broadway revival of “The Music Man,” he presented a character who would have been more comfortable walking the streets of old London than the cornfields of River City, Iowa. There’s a specificity to his eccentric delivery and appearance that wore thin even in his first big hit, “I Am My Own Wife” (2003), in which he played 35 characters. In the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” (2013), Mays played eight roles, but it was Bryce Pinkham’s far more nuanced and charismatic performance that carried the show. Mays is the dash of color, the teaspoon of glitter that adds sparkle around the edges.

In this “Christmas Carol,” even Bob Cratchit comes off addled and neurotic. There’s a reason why string instruments are the heart of an orchestra. We never tire of them over the course of a symphony or opera. The brass and the wind instruments are different story. Too much of them and we grow weary of the sound. Mays is like that. He’s a great oboe or flugelhorn.

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