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."
'A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder'
Where: The Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 14.
Tickets: Start at $39
Contact: (619) 234-5623 or http://www.theoldglobe.org
Running time: 2 hours
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