Bit by bit, the world is getting to know actor Jefferson Mays. And when it happens, he tends to be wearing a plain black dress and head scarf. That, a string of pearls and a pair of heavy black orthopedic shoes is the wardrobe as Mays plays 35 characters in "I Am My Own Wife," the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama by Doug Wright, which arrives at the National Theatre this week. Says Mays of his kaleidoscopic solo turn in drag, "I think it was called a gimmick recently by some uncharitable Midwestern reviewer."
That has been the minority opinion. Wright's play is widely acclaimed for its probing, unusually personal study of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German transvestite (born Lothar Berfelde) who seemed astonishing to Wright simply for having survived first the Nazis, then the communists.
Mays accepts the Tony Award for best actor in a play for his performance in "Wife." The demanding role, he says, "takes the stuffing out of you."
(Kathy Willens -- AP)
And Mays, 39, stood Broadway on its head with his performance as von Mahlsdorf and a gallery of characters ranging from skinheads and agents of the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, to the softly drawling Wright himself.
Wright's slow coming to terms with von Mahlsdorf gives the story its structure. Charlotte -- born in 1928, died in 2002 -- bravely lived under two notoriously oppressive regimes as an open homosexual and staunch curator of artifacts that included, believe it or not, a Weimar cabaret. But she was not always the noble figure she promoted herself to be.
By the time the Tony Awards rolled around last spring, most theater insiders correctly picked this Broadway first-timer to beat a heavyweight field that included Simon Russell Beale in Tom Stoppard's "Jumpers," Frank Langella in a new play called "Match," Kevin Kline as Falstaff in "Henry IV" and Christopher Plummer as King Lear.
Mays is a serious actor who has played great roles in regional theaters, from Hamlet at the San Diego Rep and Tartuffe at the La Jolla Playhouse to Peter Pan at Baltimore's Center Stage -- his last job before leaping into "I Am My Own Wife." Still, it's a surprise to find the moon-faced Mays in the private room of a midtown Manhattan restaurant looking like neither a casual actor nor an upscale fashion plate -- common templates for the Serious Artist. Instead he looks very . . . tweedy. And it's not just the tweed olive sport coat, which fits him like a glove. Mays's entire ensemble shrieks "Haberdashery!" from the dark vest and perfectly knotted tie to his natty brown shoes (and, later, the classic overcoat he dons on the chilly Manhattan street).
And then there's his diction. It's impeccable, as are his manners. He all but clicks his heels and nods his head as he thanks an attentive waiter. His soft voice and genteel fervor suggest a less dotty version of Niles Crane. He is professorial, even courtly.
"This will be the test," he says of playing the National, the biggest theater he has been in to date. "The true test of my mettle, and the test of how this will resonate in a space of that size."
Of Charlotte (whose name is pronounced Shar-lotta): "I don't have the first idea about her or the veracity of her stories. She's remained an enigma to me."
Of the now-fabled process by which Wright, Mays and director Moises Kaufman cobbled the play together at the Sundance Institute from the vast transcripts of Wright's interviews with von Mahlsdorf, breaking almost a decade of writer's block on the subject for Wright: "It was sort of a mosaic. We'd come up with these tessera of stories and then put them together, making no attempt initially at making any elegant transitions or bridges between them."
Tessera. Of course. The tiles of a mosaic. Spoken like a Yale man (which he is, with a degree in classics and art history). Spoken, in fact, like Yale faculty (which he's not, although he remarks that in college, "I sort of fancied being a teacher").
And then the photographer arrives, and Mays obligingly climbs the walls. First he horses around at ground level, sliding mock-drunkenly down a chair when someone says "Truman Capote," stretching his face à la Meryl Streep in the famous Annie Leibovitz photo, creating a Bela Lugosi/Peter Lorre look as he wraps his hands creepily around his skull, standing imperially with hands on hips and announcing, "This is my young Winston Churchill pose."
Doug Wright's in the room now. "I Am My Own Worst Enemy," he jokes of the shameless Mays (when he can stop laughing, that is). But Mays is on a roll; he stands on the chair, then balances on the wall's slender chair rails and gazes down at the room.
Enter Susan Lyons, actress, book editor and associate director of the touring "I Am My Own Wife," and Mays's spouse of a year and a half. (Yes, he has his own wife -- his second, in fact.) "Dahling," Lyons says in her soothing Australian voice, "come down from the ledge. Come down right now."
At which point you think perhaps you can begin to place Jefferson Mays: He fits somewhere in the Oscar Wilde-Steve Martin school of protean artist-cum-dandy, the well-dressed intellectual clown.
Mays has played "Wife" for more than a year now and has been involved in the development process since 2000. The tour is likely to stretch into 2006 -- "provided the machinery holds up," Mays remarks.
"Me," he clarifies.
He ticks off the upcoming stops on the road, from Boston to Krakow, Poland, to San Francisco, then maybe London's West End, Australia, South Africa . . . a winding, radically different commitment from the terse four- or five-week runs Mays was accustomed to in the regional theaters.
"This is longer than my first marriage, actually," he observes. (That marriage was to Kari McGee, his drama school sweetheart.) "I Am My Own Wife" is his first solo endeavor, though he cites a two-actor show called "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" as a warm-up for this. Working with experimentalist Anne Bogart and the SITI Company -- whose rich technical approach was recently on view in "Intimations for Saxophone" at Arena Stage -- an actress played Alice, while Mays played everyone else in Wonderland.
SITI's unorthodox working style made him more than ready for Wright and Kaufman's loose plan of attack for the von Mahlsdorf material. Bogart "really gave the actors a lot of rope to hang themselves and a great say in the shape of the play," Mays says. "It was a highly intuitive, knee-jerk response to the material. I hesitate to say anti-intellectual, but a Ouija board, divining rod method of making a play." And likewise with "Wife": "The line between playwright and director and actor in this experience, and in my experience with SITI, is often really blurry. And that's exciting. It becomes this great melee. I love collaborating in that way."
Wright hadn't intended to write a piece for one actor, but it seemed obvious once Mays -- whom Wright was banking on to "seize the maniac adventure" of the workshop process -- created separate voices for Wright and von Mahlsdorf. (Mays's Doug Wright voice has apparently become the source of comic mischief: Says Wright, "He uses my voice to greet me in the street. It's very disconcerting. Once he even called my significant other and started to make indecent proposals over the phone. And my partner, David, actually thought it was me!") As Wright worked more figures into the story, Mays brought each one to life, and the solo angle began to look like a great idea. Mays recalls, "Characters arrived like guests to a party, very gradually. And it was a hell of a lot of fun."
Mays compares the development process to a detective story, with evidence about Charlotte continuing to trickle in. Particularly hairy was the day they received the Stasi file of Alfred Kirschner, a friend of von Mahlsdorf who was thrown in jail by the communists. The group had a hunch about the grim news it held, for the cross-referencing of once-secret documents, using one partially corrupted file to shore up the sketchy information in another, was becoming a skill. "If you asked for your Stasi file," Mays explains, "your name would be in it, of course. Mention of everyone else was struck."
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the abundant research and Wright's fondness for von Mahlsdorf (who died before the show opened), some facts are left out -- chiefly, perhaps, the outlines of her sex life. Mays acknowledges this about the play: "It's rather demure, isn't it?" As if by way of apology and compensation, he offers an anecdote about the time Wright offered von Mahlsdorf a ride. She accepted and was dropped off after midnight at the local steam baths.
"So she was a goer," Mays concludes.
She was, as Wright found out, many things -- certainly more than just the gay icon Wright had hoped for. As Wright and Mays like to put it, in a piece about a character whose truth proves to be elusive, how better to dramatize that than with a chameleon-like performance?
Mays's virtuoso turn -- which Center Stage Artistic Director Irene Lewis, among many others, praises for its subtlety and economy -- has been quite a triumph for someone who didn't think seriously about the stage until after graduating from Yale. Mays went straight from New Haven to New York, armed with nothing more than that classics/art history degree and a dream, ready to audition and make the town his.
Bolt of lightning?
"I'm not sure. I guess it just gradually stole on me."
He counts himself lucky that, before he could fall on his face in New York, a spot opened up in the graduate acting program at the University of California at San Diego. There he performed "with impunity" in countless plays, refining the abandon of acting in the astonishingly copious (and unsupervised and ramshackle) student shows at Yale. He needed the training and real stage time; even in high school, Mays hadn't been in many plays. He traces his slender theatrical roots to the Clinton Amateur Dramatic Society, participating in staged readings of plays such as "The Importance of Being Earnest" with his parents and their friends in Connecticut, where he grew up.
In fact, reading out loud together was a major family activity once the dog knocked over the television. Mays not only adored it (and still does it with Lyons), but says it helped him deal with the challenge of dyslexia. It informs his style today: "I think being thrown into that made me struggle with words and be interested in words, and learn to get them right. That was the beginning of my love affair with language."
After grad school, Mays began working, getting roles across the country, happily "playing the field," as he puts it, of the regional circuit.
"It was lovely," he says. "And it was exactly what I imagined it would be. I remember in college saying I would love to be a journeyman actor. I would love to just travel around the country and do wonderful plays in different locations and just be this vagabond living out of a suitcase. I even had a picture of myself sort of wearing a moth-eaten tweed jacket with a big bargain bottle of Scotch in a Pittsburgh hotel room in my sixties playing Firs [the forgotten butler in "The Cherry Orchard"] and thinking, that's great."
Needless to say, the goals have changed. These days he's cozying up to life with "Wife" and wife. He got to know Lyons by offering her his Manhattan apartment while he was acting out of town -- "a great way to meet women free of charge," he says.
So what's it like, the two of them traveling around with a hit show?
"Ah," Lyons muses. "The wild, glamorous life."
"Yes," Mays intones. "The wild, glamorous life."
"It's Netflix," she says.
"And," Mays adds, "the New York Times crossword puzzle."
"And," Lyons says with sudden enthusiasm, "we've discovered jigsaw puzzles!" (There's a reason for it: During the recent run of the show at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Mays said he felt as if his brain shattered during the show, and afterward he had to put it together again. Someone said in public, "No wonder you like jigsaw puzzles," and now people send them to him.) Plus they read to each other -- Dickens's "Bleak House" is the current tome, Lyons reports. And then Mays volunteers this: "I am painting little Napoleonic hussars."
At which point Lyons makes an apologetic face and declares, "We're such dorks."
"We are dorks," he agrees. "We are absolutely irredeemable geeks."
The act isn't entirely believable, even if Mays does have to keep his body and voice well-rested for a role that he says "takes the stuffing out of you" eight times a week. Yet they're clearly smitten with each other, holding hands on the sly and murmuring about the ritual of cocoa and pajamas after the show. Lewis, who hired Mays for more than half a dozen shows at Center Stage and directed him in "Peter Pan," observes that Mays is happier than she's ever seen him, and says, "I think it's the marriage."
No doubt it is also this golden moment of professional success. Mays claims to be one of those actors who try hard not to read reviews, or maybe read them "with one hand over my face." But he clearly knows it's all pretty good right now, and he glows at the mention he received in "Letters to a Young Actor," a new book by the esteemed critic and director Robert Brustein. In summing things up, Brustein runs through a very short list of unforgettable stage performances -- Laurence Olivier in "Oedipus," Laurette Taylor in "The Glass Menagerie," Jason Robards in "The Iceman Cometh" and three or four other monumental signposts in the history of modern acting. The period at the end of that heroic sentence: Jefferson Mays in "I Am My Own Wife."