THE LEADING MEN: Jefferson Mays Wears Many Hats (and Boots and Bustles and Coats) in the New Musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
By Evan Henerson
A quick-changing Jefferson Mays plays an octet of heirs in the new musical comedy A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, now at The Old Globe in San Diego. The Tony Award-winning actor explains them all.
To say that his latest acting assignment requires Jefferson Mays to wear many hats would be clichéd, but also apt. The Tony Award-winning star of I Am My Own Wife and more recently Gore Vidal's The Best Man is a self-described "hat fetishist." Being cast in eight stylized roles in the musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder gave Mays the opportunity to indulge that particular mania with a vengeance.
When he showed up at rehearsals for a workshop of the musical at Hartford Stage, Mays arrived with bags full of hats — bowlers, taupe silk hats, tweed cloth cap, even a topper owned by his wife that would be transformed into a beekeeper's hat.
I Am My Own Wife had more than 37 characters, although as Mays notes, every last one of them was "by default wearing that little black dress, string of pearls and head scarf." In Gentleman's Guide, a co-production between Hartford Stage and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, Mays plays the entire line of the fictionalized D'Ysquith family, working his way up and down the ladder of Edwardian aristocracy from earls to actresses, from musclemen to missionaries.
Monty Navarro (played by Ken Barnett), an illegitimate heir who is ninth in line to the D'Ysquith earldom, sets his sights on improving his position and targets the eight D'Ysquiths ahead of him. Film mavens may recognize Gentlemen's Guide from the 1949 film "Kind Hearts and Coronets," which — like Gentleman's Guide was also inspired by the Roy Harniman novel "Israel Rank." In that film, Alec Guinness played eight roles, but Guinness had days of shooting and multiple takes.
Mays has two and a half hours. Bring on the hats.
"It always makes me sound really shallow, but I work from the outside in," says the Connecticut-born actor speaking by phone during a rehearsal break in San Diego. "I try to think of what a character looks like, what types of shoes he'll wear and I try to wear to rehearsals something that feels more or less like what the costume will be. We used the hats for signifiers of the changing characters and with that, of course, I would change my voice or my stance."
"Clothes are very important," he adds. "I think it's also getting the visual idea of what my character looks like before I go out and start rehearsing. It's totally demoralizing to look at stills because you never look anything like who you imagine you're playing. It just looks like me in a wig."
Or a muscle suit, a top hat, a bustle, a set of false teeth or anything else he and costume designer Linda Cho deemed properly D'Ysquithian. Mays is a research buff as well as a performer and he and Cho had numerous discussions about costume choices including the suggestion that Cho bring some steam punk elements into some of the clothing choices.
Clothes aside, Mays taking on the D'Ysquiths has been a workout. Even with the play's Hartford Stage run completed a few months ago, the actor reports being "bloody but unbowed," his once stiff upper lip a bit the worse for wear.
"A lot of mustaches are applied hastily and taken off in the wings," he says. "I had a face full of sores by the end of the run. I'll try to figure out something."
Mustaches, in fact, are positively the easy part.
"My costumes open in the back and there's a zipper," he says. "So I finish a scene, throw myself into the darkness of the wings and am immediately set upon by three muscular women who rip my clothes off….It sounds more fun contemplating it than it does doing it….So they tear my clothes off, I jump in the new outfit and they pick me up and literally shove me back on stage. It's like the pit crew at the Indy 500."
You may need a scorecard to sort out the diverse D'Ysquiths a few of whom admittedly make little more than an extended cameo. Mays gave us a tour through the family along with some thoughts and musings. Read on!
Asquith "Assie" D'Ysquith Jr. — Young Dandy
Reverend Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith — a Man of Limited Intellect, Rather Too Fond of his Port
Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith, the 8th Earl of D'Ysquith — an Arrogant Formidable Presence
Lord Asquith D'Ysquith — Elderly Banker Not Usually Given to Public Displays of Emotion
Henry D'Ysquith — a Landowner and Country Squire
Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith — Missionary, a Woman of a Certain Age
Major Lord Bartholomew D'Ysquith — a Ridiculously Musclebound Health Nut
Lady Salome D'Ysquith Pumphrey — a Flamboyantly Awful Actress
Mays explains, "Several times during the run at Hartford, I would hear bits of conversations in the restroom to the effect of, 'Oh, isn't it wonderful that they got actors who look more or less the same to play the various members of the family.' That made me both very happy and very depressed. I was heartened by the fact that they weren't sure how many actors were playing the role, but they obviously hadn't read the program."
(Evan Henerson is a Los Angeles-based arts writer and former theater critic for the Los Angeles Daily News. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Backstage and Stage Directions.)
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