Theater Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Geffen Playhouse in Westwood)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on November 11, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


A Christmas Carol keeps the lights on at theaters across the country, filling their coffers every year and helping underwrite their other productions. It usually is done as a rather jolly affair, along the lines of British panto, where nothing bad ever seems to happen. Sometimes the ghosts are funny rather than scary, and the children of major donors find themselves on stage sprinkled with fake snow.

Lately, Patrick Stewart’s one-man version has proved a big hit. Other actors playing Scrooge on stage over the years includes Len Cariou, Terrence Mann, Tony Randall, Hal Linden, Roddy McDowell, Roger Daltrey, Tony Roberts, Frank Langella, Tim Curry, F. Murray Abraham. We all have our favorite film Scrooges too. The first widely successful sound version (there were many silent ones) starred Reginald Owen in 1938, with Alastair Sim following in 1951, and Albert Finney in a musicalized 1970 version that holds up rather well. Animated versions have abounded, with everyone from the Muppets to Mickey Mouse to Mister Magoo having a go.

When I think of A Christmas Carol, though, I confess that the first image that comes to mind is Mary Lou Retton doing forward handsprings. In 1988 Bill Murray starred in Scrooged with the character reimagined as a brutal TV executive. His network is airing a new version of the story. We catch a glimpse at a rehearsal with Ms. Retton as Tiny Tim gymnastically throwing crutches aside, backed up by the Solid Gold Dancers. It is sublime.

But a new image has taken hold in my head, and I suspect it won’t let go easily. For now, I am quite sure that when anyone mentions the Dickens story, the first thing I will see is Jefferson Mays staring into my soul in his brilliantly staged one-man version — not a play so much as a dramatic reading — adapted by Mr. Mays, his wife Susan Lyons, and director Michael Arden.

In the program, Mays shares how his late parents began the tradition of reading the story out loud every year, doing all the voices. The love he has for those memories and his family come through in this wonderfully imaginative telling of the tale. This does not mean that it is sentimental or even particularly family-friendly. It is dark, scary, even a little demented at times. The love comes in his depth of commitment. Mays doesn’t so much recreate the story as channel it. We are no longer in at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. We are freezing, feeling around in the dark, trying to regain sanity and sense.

Turning on what seems like a massive staircase, making his way up with so little light that he seems an apparition, Mays tells us, “Darkness is cheap. Scrooge liked it.” The darkness on stage becomes part of the magic, with lighting designer Ben Stanton acting as a second character, and sound designer Joshua D. Reid as a third. Because it all feels so ghostly, everything feels like a surprise, every change of character, every change of perspective. Set and costume designer Dane Laffrey and projection designer Lucy Mackinnon round out the technical team with neat tricks of their own.

Mr. Arden keeps everything moving, as if it is all happening at once, keeping us in breathless suspense. Sliding panels, the staircase, clever projections, and other stagecraft are exquisitely timed, enabling the truly astonishing sequence where Mays plays both Scrooge and the ghost of Marley, and you wouldn’t just swear that there are two actors on stage, you would swear that there’s an old miser and an actual ghost! We are giddy with delight every time something shifts. I felt my eyes shining throughout, and when I looked around, I saw the same expression on others: All of us looking like thrilled, expectant children. And isn’t that the point?

photos by Chris Whitaker

A Christmas Carol
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on December 2, 2018 EXTENDED to December 16, 2018
for tickets, call 310.208.5454
or visit Geffen Playhouse

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