Jefferson Mays: Broadway Chameleon
AUG 5, 2013
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 End, Pygmalion 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.”