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THEATER : OC LIVE! : Winter of His Content : Why Landon Likes Being a Scrooge

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s upon us again: Ebenezer Scrooge time.

If presentations of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” seem endless, how must the season seem to actors who play Scrooge? What about an actor who has played the role consistently at South Coast Repertory for the past 16 years? Can there be any Christmas cheer left?

Hal Landon Jr. asserts that there can be, and is. Besides, Landon says after a decade and a half, “I don’t need nearly as much makeup now.”

Landon--a South Coast Rep founding member who lists “Pacific Heights” and “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” among his film credits and was a regular on the short-lived CBS sitcom “Muddling Through” in 1994--admits there are times when he feels as though he’s been playing Scrooge for 16 years straight, rather than just four weeks each year.

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“I love the part,” he says. “I’ll play it as long as they want me. There are many things that make it worthwhile, one of which is that it is such a wonderful part. But I’ve often had people who’ve come backstage or will see me at some point during the year, tell me that Christmas for them--that feeling of charity and giving that exists on the very personal level that they had when they were kids--has been eroded by the commercialism that seems to get worse every year. They don’t recapture that feeling they had when they were kids until they see our production every year. That makes me feel really good.”

Another fortunate turn that has helped Landon keep up the spirit is that the production has evolved since its first staging. For the first couple of years, Landon says, there was an emphasis on the comedic aspects of the story, with the result that Scrooge was merely a crotchety curmudgeon.

“I’ve moved in the direction of now making him this very cold, calculating, rapacious businessman. We realized our mistake very quickly, and proceeded to correct it and have been moving further and further in that direction.

“What’s interesting to me is that the kids still get into the story. Maybe there aren’t as many pratfalls for the very young children. But from 5 or 6 years upward, they like the sort of adult version as much or better than any efforts to lighten it up. They don’t really need the comic byplay nearly as much as we sometimes think they do.”

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With its social and economic implications for the world of the 1840s, “A Christmas Carol” was clearly not written as a children’s story, Landon points out. His “bible” in preparing for the role was the “Annotated ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” and he remembers the author’s explanation:

“There was this utilitarian economic philosophy which was very prevalent then,” Landon says. “It was that individuals should be concerned with making themselves as financially comfortable as possible so that they didn’t need the government to help them in any way. Charity and things like that were out of the question.”

It was as a counter response to that philosophy that Dickens wrote the story.

This background helped Landon fill out his characterization as it transmogrified through the years.

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“I always approached it that somewhere hidden was the Scrooge you see at the end,” says the actor. “It was just a matter of getting to that.

“There’s an interesting problem in the play. In the book, when Scrooge is faced with the scenes from his past, even in the very first one, when he goes to the schoolyard. His emotional reaction is very complete. He laughs, he cries, and in that you see that this is a man with a heart. People told me that it took the suspense out of the play. That’s been one of the more difficult things about playing the role. There has to be some suspense. Modulating that is one of the interesting challenges.”

Landon remembers the references in the novella about the personification of greed, coldness, hardheartedness.

“He can’t ever be too hard-hearted,” he says. “Both in the show and in the character, there’s been a considerable evolution over the years.”

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Meanwhile, Landon has grown, if not to love the old dog, at least to be sympathetic.

“I had to find out what made this person the way he is,” he says, “in order to convincingly portray that.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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*What: “A Christmas Carol.”

* When: Preview tonight at 7:30. Opens Friday, with performances Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., Sunday at noon and 4 p.m. through Dec. 24.

* Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Avenue and exit north. Go right on Town Center Drive.

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* Wherewithal: Tonight’s preview is $15-$19; regular run, $22-$30. A pay-what-you-will performance ($5 minimum) is this Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

* Where to call: (714) 957-4033.

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THEATER LISTINGS, P19

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