31 October 2014

Jefferson Mays, Chameleonic Actor

[On 16 October, I posted a performance report on the Broadway production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, the winner of the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical.  The stand-out performance in the show was from Jefferson Mays, nominated for a Tony himself (he lost out to Neil Patrick Harris for Hedwig and the Angry Inch) for his portrayals of eight doomed members of the D’Ysquith family.  Needless to say, as soon as the play made it to the press’s attention with its world première in Hartford, Connecticut (the production was originated in a co-production of the Hartford Stage and San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre), Mays’s stage work garnered a lot of elaborate—and well-deserved, IMO—praise.  (In his review of the Broadway opening, Charles Isherwood, for instance, dubbed Mays’s “chameleonic performance” a “true tour de force.”)  I downloaded three articles reporting this remarkable achievement, and they’re posed below.  The first article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on 12 March 2013 (http://articles.latimes.com/print/2013/mar/12/entertainment/la-et-cm-jefferson-mays-20130313).] 

by Margaret Gray

In ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,’ he portrays nine aristocrats bumped off by an ambitious relative. It requires a certain pallor and a lot of color.

SAN DIEGO — While Jefferson Mays was performing in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” in the fall of 2012 at Hartford Stage, he recalls, his wife kept overhearing variations on the same remark at intermission:

“Isn’t it wonderful how they got actors who all look the same to play the different members of the D’Ysquith family?”

“It made me very happy and really depressed, simultaneously,” says Mays, who was in fact the only actor cast to play all nine D’Ysquiths (DIE-squiths), aristocrats in line for a dukedom who get inventively bumped off one by one by an ambitious relative.

The darkly comic musical by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) is based on the 1907 Roy Horniman novel “Israel Rank” (the same book inspired the 1949 film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” featuring Alec Guinness as all of the doomed heirs). It opens Wednesday at San Diego’s Old Globe, which co-produced the show with Hartford Stage.

Along with the rest of the original cast, including Ken Barnett as charming, mass-murdering antihero Monty Navarro and Chilina Kennedy and Lisa O’Hare as his competing love interests, Mays is on board to reprise his critically acclaimed performances.

Mays, no stranger to playing multiple roles — he won a Tony Award in 2004 for playing 37 characters in Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning one-man show, “I Am My Own Wife” — describes the challenge of becoming nine D’Ysquiths of diverse ages and genders over the course of a single evening as “more athletic than artistic.”

“I try to inhabit each of the characters as fully as I can, however short-lived they are,” he says. “But most of my show happens offstage.

“I finish a scene, run hell-for-leather into the wings, in the dark, where I’m set upon by three husky wardrobe women who tear off my clothes, put me in the next costume and give me a squirt of water and dab my face and put on a mustache, or rip off a mustache, and literally shove me back onstage.”

“I don’t know what we did without Velcro in the American theater,” he adds. “It’s a miracle substance! People had long intermissions, probably.”

He describes his work in the musical as “deliriously fun, if exhausting. I’m not a young man. I’m 47 years old, and I do feel really wrung out at the end of the evening, unable to go out and lead the life of a dissolute and glamorous actor, the sort of behavior they’ve come to expect from us, so it’s pretty much home to a glass of a warm milk, some Dickens, and then bed.”

On a Saturday afternoon in Balboa Park, Mays, who stands out from the casually dressed pleasure seekers in a tweed suit under a dashing trench coat and fedora, could himself be an aristocrat transplanted from Edwardian England.

His wife, the Australian actress Susan Lyons, having accompanied him to his interview, kisses him goodbye and heads off to an organ concert nearby.

Neither seems particularly happy about parting, even for an hour.

“We’re quite fond of each other,” Mays acknowledges wistfully as the distance between them grows.

But the discovery of a pleasant balcony overlooking the Old Globe’s matinee crowd seems to restore him. He pulls a chair into a shady spot, joking, “I need to preserve my consumptive pallor for the play.”

He is in fact fair-skinned, but his cheeks are pink with health and his eyes as blue as agates. With a crisp, dryly witty conversational style and gentle, courtly manners, he is the very model of a not-so-modern English gentleman, the sort of character he has inhabited in plays such as “Pygmalion” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” for a significant portion of his professional career.

So it’s startling to learn that he’s American, raised in Clinton, Conn.

Was there anything in his childhood that could account for his predisposition to be so … well … English?

“My mother was a children’s librarian,” Mays ventures, “and I was raised on lots of English children’s literature. It gave me this weird idea that I was English. We didn’t have a television — our set fell off a table sometime during the Vietnam War — and so we would read Dickens around the dinner table. Also, I grew up in a neighborhood devoid of other children. There was a lot of playing by myself, wearing last year’s Halloween costume and wandering around the yard talking to myself — which may account for my fondness for doing different voices.”

When he went off to his local college — Yale University — he planned to become a classics professor, but his interest in Latin and Greek was quickly eclipsed by his extracurricular love of the theater.

“They had about 80 productions a year, in dining halls and on loading docks, and it was all student run,” he says. “It was us all being stupid together and figuring things out and challenging and inspiring each other, and that was a purely collaborative experience and, I think, the best training one could possibly have.”

He went on to the graduate program at UC San Diego and began to work at the La Jolla Playhouse while he was still a student, earning his Equity card with his first role. He has been acting steadily in regional theaters, on Broadway and in television and film ever since.

Although he is something of an expert on Edwardian customs and speech, before “A Gentleman’s Guide,” he had been in only one musical, “My Fair Lady,” as Henry Higgins, which he calls “a great role for somebody who’s dipping a toe into musical theater, because he can speak-sing.” But in this musical he has a diverse array of numbers.

“I don’t think anybody’s ever said, ‘Wow, you’ve got such a beautiful voice,’” he laughs, “but nobody’s complained. I can count that as a small victory.”

Darko Tresnjak, the director of “A Gentleman’s Guide” and the artistic director of the Old Globe from 2004 to 2009, was one of Mays’ earliest fans. “I cast him in a production of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at the Williamstown Theater Festival,” he said by telephone. “That production changed everything for me. The reviews came out, and in one weekend I booked the next three years of work.

“Years later, when this musical came my way, the authors asked me who I thought should play these parts, and I knew instantly that Jefferson would be the one,” Tresnjak said.

Barnett, who as Monty Navarro is obliged to do away with Mays eight times a night, said, also by telephone, that one of the functions of the rehearsal process has been to allow the actors “to laugh it out while we can, in the hope that we’ll be able to hold it together onstage.

“It’s such a delicate balance,” Barnett went on. “If the D’Ysquiths are too odious it’s not fun. Jefferson manages to make each individual character adorable and lovable and utterly despicable at the same time, which allows me to enjoy my time with them and also feel quite justified in murdering them all.”

*  *  *  *
[The second  article I downloaded was posted on the website Broadway Direct on 5 August 2013 (http://broadwaydirect.com/feature/jefferson-mays-broadway-chameleon).]

by Gerard Raymond

You will simply die with laughter every time Jefferson Mays croaks on stage.  And lucky for you, he does it eight times a night in his gasp-inducing performance, playing eight deliciously doomed characters in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.  

Robert Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s devilishly funny new Broadway musical—which begins performances at the Walter Kerr Theatre on October 22—tells the story of a charismatic young social climber named Monty (Bryce Pinkham) who stands to inherit a vast fortune if only he can rid himself of eight pesky relatives.  Enter Jefferson Mays in a whirlwind tour de force as all eight members of the noble D’Ysquith (pronounced “Die-squith”) family.

“I love the head-spinning nature of it,” says Mays, who won Tony, Drama Desk and Theater World awards in 2004 for taking on 37 different roles in the solo show I Am My Own Wife.  “I think, like most actors, I suffer from what I call ‘the Bottom syndrome,’” he confides, referring to the character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream who insists on playing all the parts in the play-within-the-play about Pyramus and Thisbe.  “So here my wish has come true, my pathology has been sustained!”  Unlike the one-man show however, where Mays suggested the various characters while retaining the simple black dress worn by the main character, in the current musical the  actors pulls off a complete character transformation each time around.  “Some of the costume changes happen on stage, and one of them is, I think, about three seconds. It’s a sensation that I have never experienced before: being set upon in the dark by sometimes four people, who tear your clothes off and put you into something new and then push you back on stage, after perhaps squirting some water into your mouth.  It’s like a funhouse ride for me in the dark. I get to breathe only when the audience laughs, because, then, time gets suspended and you can lean up against the show for a few precious moments.”

Born in Connecticut, Mays completed an undergraduate degree in classics and art history at Yale University, but got lured into acting after taking part in extra-curricular undergrad theater.  He went on to graduate from the University of California, San Diego, and began his career working primarily in regional theaters around the country.  “The only way for an actor starting out to play really good, interesting roles with any sort of surety was in the regions. You can sink your teeth into the monster roles almost immediately, and I think that’s the best training.” Over the past five years, since his Tony Award-winning Broadway debut in I Am Own Wife, he has returned to the Great White Way for acclaimed revivals of Journey’s EndPygmalion and The Best Man.

“Jefferson is a chameleon; he can make the most outrageous choice and with him it will be perfectly stylish,” says Gentleman’s Guide director Darko Tresnjak, who recommended Mays for this production. Mays says he “leapt at the chance, although it wasn’t without a certain amount of trepidation.” He explains that this production marks his first real foray into the world of musical theater.  Prior to this, in 2008, he had stepped in at the last minute to replace the actor playing Henry Higgins in the Maine Ogunquit Playhouse production of My Fair Lady.  “I had just finished doing Pygmalion and thought it would be wonderful to do the speaking and singing Higgins.  It was a gentle way to get into musicals.  Now I am beginning to sing and no one has complained yet, so I am happy!”

At the first workshop, when Mays had to come up with a clear way to differentiate his slate of D’Ysquiths, he says he honored his first responses when he fell in love with the script on a quick initial read.  “I am a bit of a hat fetishist, and I have a large collection of hats at home, so I picked out hats for all the characters; my wife, Susan, kindly lent me some of her hats as well.  So I brought all those in – a sort of Boer War silver topee helmet, a top hat, a bowler, a boater and several tweed cloth caps – and, I am happy to say, they all, or at least a semblance, are in the production.”

The D’Ysquith family, Mays offers, “certainly represents all that is wrong with the British Empire at that point, so they deserve their comeuppance in their own way, but you also have to make them interesting and even likeable.  I have tried to make them as real as they can be under the circumstances – it is a delightful handful of eccentrics. I like playing them all – this whole spread of DNA over the course of the evening.  Of course, they are all fundamentally me; I don’t have any personal favorites. It actually does upset me when people say they liked one better, then my feelings get hurt!” In Mays’ gallery of D’Ysquiths, you get to meet, among others, Asquith D’Ysquith Jr., (“a sexual predator and a bit of rake who wears a bowler hat at a jaunty angle”); Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, the family patriarch (“I pictured him as rather bloated, a fox-hunting man; he wears a top-hat”); Lady Salome (“a flamboyant actress with a mane of red tresses and a turban scarf wrapped around her head”); Lady Hyacinth (“progressive, missionary, probably a suffragette, and rather mannish”); and Rev. Lord Ezekiel D’Ysquith (“he goes hat-less but has mutton-chop whiskers and a protruding overbite, my only use of prosthetics”).

As Mays describes his character transformations with obvious glee, he admits also to occasionally having a twinge of regret when it turns out he has done his job too well.  After performances of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, during the acclaimed engagements of this production at Hartford Stage, CT and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, it appears that some audience members didn’t actually realize that all eight characters were played by the same actor. “This is a sore point with me, I confess to it,” Mays exclaims. “I was delighted and also I was extremely depressed and wanted to kill myself! As an actor you want to disappear completely into whatever role you are doing, but you also want to get the accolade for the stunning transformation.”

In truth though, Mays appears to be having an indecent amount of fun giving life to each D’Ysquith during their short time left on earth before getting conveniently snuffed out by the protagonist.  A good part of the fun, he explains, is being part of a musical.  “I am very new to musicals, as I said, and there is a peculiar thing that happens that you don’t get with plays. When you hear that overture striking up, and the curtain hasn’t gone up yet, it is just thrilling, as hokey as that sounds. And then you step aboard this magic carpet, the music that carries you through the course of the evening. And then the audience comes aboard as well, and there is no stopping it.  It is one of the most exhilarating feelings I have yet had in the theater, and I am addicted to it.”

*  *  *  *
[The last piece on Jefferson Mays’s amazing transformations in Gentleman’s Guide came from the New York Observer of 14 November 2013 (http://observer.com/2013/11/meet-the-mad-hatter-of-broadway).]

by Harry Haun 

Even if one didn’t already exist in his gallery of colorful eccentrics, Jefferson Mays would qualify as the Main Stem’s Mad Hatter. He’s easy to spot at any Broadway opening: He’s the one wearing a hat.

“You can say pathology, you can say fetish,” he offered in a recent interview. “I love hats. I’ve always loved hats.”

His prodigious hat collection has come in handy in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which opens next week at the Walter Kerr Theater. Mr. Mays plays D’Ysquith (pronounced DIE-swith) or, to be exact, eight D’Ysquiths in a neat little row leading to the title of Earl of Highhurst. As they idle impatiently with an advanced sense of entitlement, they dwindle: Monty Navarro, a greedy arriviste newly named ninth-in-the-line-of-succession, has started taking an ax to the family tree, dispatching the remaining D’Ysquiths in a hilariously horrific fashion, clearing his path to Highhurst Castle.

“When I did the first reading,” Mr. Mays said, “I thought, ‘How am I going to differentiate these characters?’ I had a couple of days before the presentation so I ransacked my hat collection and got a bowler, a boater, a Boar War silver topee helmet, a top hat, a fez, several tweed-cloth caps, even one of my wife’s hats—anything I could find and brought them all to the first read-through. Either they’re still in the show now—or a reasonable facsimile of them are. Some actors start with the right shoes. I start with the right hats.”

If this much of the plot has set off a distant ding-a-ling of recognition, you’re not hearing things. The creators of this smart and stylish dark-comedy musical—Robert F. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics)—are drawing from the same source material that provided the absolute capper of England’s early Ealing Studio comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets, which introduced us to a gifted comedian-chameleon named Alec Guinness, playing all eight of the dying aristocrats.

From the evidence on display here and in previous performances, it would be safe to surmise that Mr. Mays is seriously bucking to become the stateside Alec Guinness.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder gives him a strong leg-up on that score.All these people who lie between our ‘hero’ and his (as he sees it) rightful ascendance to the Earldom are a wonderful, horrible, eccentric bunch,” he said. “They personify, each individually, everything that’s wrong with the British Empire. Of course, all seven deadly sins are represented in the D’Ysquiths—with one to spare.”

The one sin-free D’Ysquith, to Mr. Mays’ mind, is Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr. “I think that he’s an honorable man, and, in this, it’s a pleasure to play someone who’s rather decent. He very kindly takes Monty under his wing and helps him along on his path.”

But the rest are a sorry lot. There’s Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, whose showstopping line is “I Don’t Understand the Poor”; Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr., a sexual predator on the underclasses; Lord Henry D’Ysquith, beekeeper and snooty twit; Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith, fitness freak and military man; Rev. Lord Ezekiel D’Ysquith, benignly bonkers cleric; Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey, bad actress; and Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, a missionary-suffragette zealot and society woman who tries to improve things by dragging Africans out of their huts and showing them the ways of the virtues of colonialism.

Some are on stage for only a few seconds before they’re killed off. “It’s quite a challenge to create an impression in the short amount of time I have,” Mr. Mays said. “Many of them have their own song, but I think if each had one it would make a very, very long evening.”

Director Darko Tresnjak, a big noise in regional theater now making his move on Broadway, tried the show out last fall on his current turf (Hartford Stage) and in the spring on his former turf (San Diego’s Old Globe) and, at both stops, was critically embraced. The Times Charles Isherwood hit the tom-toms in Hartford that it “ranks among the most inspired and entertaining new musical comedies I’ve seen in years.”

The “varied” and “melodious” score by Mr. Lutvak, a cabaret singer-turned-composer, and the “witty” and “spot-on” lyrics he concocted with Mr. Freedman were particularly cheered.  “The score is sublime—it really is,” seconded Mr. Mays. “It makes me sound like a Philistine saying this, but it’s music you can go out of the theater humming.”

Mr. Lutvak, he pointed out, is a scholar of both popular music and classical music. “So you have everything quoted in this, from Chopin to Sondheim to Gilbert and Sullivan to Noel Coward to Mozart to English music hall to waltzes. It goes all over the place—and to great effect. Nothing is ever jarring, either. It’s rather seamless, just transcendently beautiful music.”

Orchestrator extraordinaire Jonathan Tunick, who rarely strays from Sondheim’s side, prepared the music for an orchestra of 12. These days, that’s positively fat.

Good songs, Mr. Mays said, “do the acting for you—and it is like a magic ride of sorts. You step on and you step off, blissfully at the end of the evening. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve never experienced.”

The Broadway musical may be something Mr. Mays is new to, but multitasking has become an art form with him. He arrived on Broadway in I Am My Own Wife, fragmented into 37 different characters (almost three times Sally Field’s Sybil) so the eight D’Ysquiths confronting him are tantamount to a month in the country.

Although this specialty is pronounced, Mr. Mays refuses to trade off it. “I should be one of those actors who has a list. A lot of people do—‘I wanna do this and this and this’—but I don’t. I enjoy being surprised— indeed, often ambushed—by a role. Think of being called up and hearing, ‘Do you want to be a 65-year-old East German gay transvestite in this play?’ How many times in your life are you going to hear that?”

He heard it just once, and it was “Open Sesame” to the role of a lifetime, the Tony Award and an “overnight” Broadway career established with one lucky blow.

Doug Wright was on the other end of that phone, inviting him to come to Sundance to work on a play that was still in Mr. Wright’s head. The two had been friends since working together on Quills (Mr. Mays had played the hospital administrator lording over the Marquis de Sade)—and a friend was what was needed here to read back the play that was spilling out. “He felt guilty asking Sundance, at great expense, to fly in a cast of people he wasn’t sure he’d need. He said, ‘I don’t really have a play yet. I just have stuff you read back to me as I write it.’ Then, from there, it developed into what it was.” I Am My Own Wife, won Wright the Tony, too—and the Pulitzer Prize—and became the most-often produced play for several years after its Broadway run.

But Mr. Mays doesn’t envy the regional actors who now have to wrestle that bear of a play to the ground. “I think if I were to confront that finished play now as an actor, I would be shattered to the point of paralysis,” he said. What he did—now it can be told—was ease into the role(s) in increments. The process—one actor doing many roles—became the play: Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and the people in her life.

He went the multi-character route only one other time, in an adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which he was Charles Dodson (read: Lewis Carroll) telling Alice the story by acting out The Mock Turtle, The March Hare, assorted Queens, and, of course, The Mad Hatter. “It’s euphoria,” he said, “jumping wildly from persona to persona on the stage.”

When he’s in a single role, it tends to be an idiosyncratic one: St. John Quartermaine, the musical and nonmusical Henry Higgins, the milquetoast with a history-altering secret in The Best Man, the cook in Journey’s End, Alexander Throttlebottom, the Manchester MI6 spy in Blood and Gift and that mother of them all, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. “It’s an endless source of frustration for my agents, I’m sure, trying to figure out where to put me next, but I’ve been very fortunate—and I’ve been able to fall in, almost literally, to some very, very interesting projects.”

In all of the above, hats make the characters—which is why, on the rainy Tuesday afternoon on which The Observer spoke with him, it was a bit disconcerting when Mr. Mays arrived at Café Orlin disguised as a civilian—in Yankee baseball cap! “I know,” he said sheepishly. “I actually came out of the building wearing my Panama hat, but I thought, ‘Well, it’s going to be wet burlap by the time I get home,’ so I went back and put this on out of practicality.”

As for how he became enamored of hats in the first place, “As a child, I would wake up in the morning and put on a different hat. Just the other day I read that, in espionage, if you are being shadowed by someone, the best way to disappear is to change your hat. It will completely throw off the most astute tail—that’s the cheap, easy way. Maybe I’m always trying to hide. Maybe that’s what led to my interest in becoming an actor.”

[Born Lewis Jefferson Mays in Clinton, Connecticut, on 8 June 1965, Jefferson Mays got a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale College and then went on to the Graduate Drama Program of the University of California, San Diego, for an MFA in acting (1991).  Early in his career, he appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse, just outside of San Diego, and the Long Wharf Theatre, in New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University, as well as the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown Massachusetts, and New York City’s Playwrights Horizons, among other highly regarded repertory companies.  Mays has worked extensively with Des McAnuff, former artistic director of La Jolla, and Anne Bogart; for several years, he was a member of Bogart's SITI company of Saratoga Springs, New York, and New York City.  He now lives in New York’s East Village with his wife (since 2004), Australian actress and book editor Susan Lyons, and their rescue dog, Maud.

[Though his eight-character juggling act for Gentleman’s Guide didn’t win him a Tony in 2014, Mays did win the award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play in 2004 for playing some 40 roles in Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, I Am My Own Wife, his Broadway début.  He also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show, an Obie Award, and a Theatre World Award for his performance as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the transgender East German who survived both the Nazis and the German communists.  The versatile actor— Gentleman’s Guide is his first major musical performance—has also appeared in critically-acclaimed revivals, Shaw’s Pygmalion (as Henry Higgins) and R. C. Sherriff’s Journey's End (Private Mason), both in 2007.  In rep, he’s played Hamlet at the San Diego Rep, Tartuffe at La Jolla and Peter Pan at Baltimores Center Stage.  Mays has also appeared on television (The Good Wife, Mildred Pierce ) and in films (Cousin Bette, Alfie), and he records audio books (Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience).] 


No comments:

Post a Comment