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Theatre in Review: A Christmas Carol (Nederlander Theatre)

Jefferson Mays. Photo: A Christmas Carol Live

You can't say the design department of A Christmas Carol hasn't done its work; indeed, the members of the team have all but exhausted themselves in bringing the Charles Dickens classic to theatrical life. Dane Laffrey employs curtains, sliding panels, and wagons to deliver a series of locations from the past, present, and potentially baleful future, of Ebenezer Scrooge; at one point, a display of Yuletide abundance -- a vividly Victorian tableau suitable for a Saks Fifth Avenue window -- lowers in before vanishing in a trice. Ben Stanton reproduces the exact quality of candlelight to a fault; particularly striking is the sight of Scrooge's cheerless chambers, bereft of furniture and illuminated by a shaft of moonlight that, passing through the window, promptly gives up and expires. Lucy Mackinnon's projections conjure up a panoply of interiors and exteriors, filling mullioned windows with images of holiday celebrations and calling up menacing spirits from the beyond; when Scrooge travels into his past, it is via a terrifying vortex. Joshua D. Reid kicks off the proceedings with a sound cue (accompanied by blackout) that sends a shiver of fearful laughter rippling through the audience. All told, it is a peerless display of technical expertise.

And it is almost entirely self-defeating. Everyone, beginning with director Michael Arden and his co-adapters Jefferson Mays (the evening's sole performer) and Susan Lyons, has apparently forgotten that A Christmas Carol is about the profound transformation of heart that snatches back Scrooge, that "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner," from the brink of doom. It's the story of a soul rescued from damnation, a frozen heart miraculously returned to life. Redemption never goes out of style, which may help explain why the book has been adapted hundreds of times in every available entertainment format.

But the creative team is so in thrall to each ominous creak, flourish of light, and scenic vista, all of them seemingly borrowed from the Hammer House of Horror, that Scrooge and his spiritual journey are too often obscured. In the case of Stanton's lighting, I mean this literally: The trouble lies not in appreciating Mays, one of our finest character actors; the challenge is to find him in the darkness that often engulfs the stage. At other times, he is almost drowned out by the uncredited music; an actor's job is tough enough without having to battle his collaborators.

Whenever the production calms down, Mays can bring one to the brink of tears, especially in his portrayal of the Cratchits as that troubled, poverty-stricken little family busily prepares for its meager Christmas feast. Mays, who, aided by hair and wig designer Cookie Jordan, looks to have stepped out of an illustration by George Cruikshank, captures the bustle and excitement, the sheer suspense as the long-awaited pudding is revealed in all its homemade splendor. He delineates each member of the family -- the children stuffing their mouths with spoons "lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped" -- with supreme skill, never forgetting that the day's joy is laced with awareness of crushing sorrows to come. He is similarly assured when depicting an altered Scrooge on Christmas morning, all but falling out of his bedroom window as he frantically prepares to procure a turkey for the Cratchits, and, later, when he tentatively approaches the door of the nephew whom he has so long scorned. At such times, one gets tantalizing glimpses of what A Christmas Carol might be if the star were allowed to exercise his magic without interruption.

The spell does not last long, however. Certainly, the production has its moments: Mackinnon's projections make the Ghost of Christmas Future the most fearsome of specters and she rings down the curtain with a startling, enveloping image of a snow-blown cemetery. Reid calls up an evocative cacophony of bells and creates inventive vocal distortions for the ghosts. Laffrey also dresses Mays appropriately and some of Stanton's lighting effects are striking. But for all the skill on display, everyone has their priorities wrong, favoring mise en scène over character and reveling in effects when the only event that matters is Scrooge's transformation. Without a solid, unbreakable connection between actor and audience, it becomes a display of theatrical craft for its own sake.

New York has seen many Christmas Carols over the years, proving that there are many ways of theatricalizing the book, among them Patrick Stewart's unforgettable solo presentation, which visited us several times, and Matthew Warchus' delicate, affecting Old Vic staging, seen on Broadway in 2019. This current attraction at the Nederlander will impress many, especially in its creepier moments. (There are enough smoke effects to suggest that Scrooge resides just above the gates of Hell.) It may well be catnip for children with short attention spans and a taste for ghost stories. But the sound I kept detecting was that of Charles Dickens, restless in his grave, preparing to place lumps of coal in certain stockings. --David Barbour

(2 December 2022)

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