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A Christmas Carol Reimagined
‘Tis the season for holiday regulars. Among the most produced seasonal treats are literally dozens of A Christmas Carol movies and TV shows. So is there a reason to pay $35 for yet another retelling of this classic Dickens creation? My answer is yes! Use your live-theater savings. The Jefferson Mays “Christmas Carol,” directed by Michael Arden, is truly remarkable. If you think there is little that could make this worn-out story compelling, think again. This one is truly fascinating.
Jefferson Mays is well known for his appearances in film and television playing unforgettable characters. But theatre fans know that Mays is truly a master of playing multiple parts in a single play. On Broadway, he became famous portraying the transgender host of a secret gay soiree in East Germany during World War II and during the Russian occupation in I Am My Own Wife. “My Own Wife,” as in A Christmas Carol, is a one-man show or, dare I say, a multiple-men and -women show played by one man. He took a comic turn playing nine characters in the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. He won Tony Awards for both multiple roles.
Mays gives an amazing performance in this beautifully realized production. The script is an edited version of Dickens’ actual words. Mays narrates and plays every character as convincingly and distinctly as any fully cast version. He celebrates Dickens’ writing while turning this story into a compelling portrait of redemption. I challenge you not to see his portrayals as filling the stage with distinct and fascinating personalities.
The production is also beautifully and creatively realized
by director Michael Arden. It is staged
in a Broadway theater with full sets and costumes and very evocative
lighting. In this time of stay-at-home
orders, theatre enthusiasts have longed for the feeling of live theater. There are many staged readings and Zoom adaptations
available, most as fund raisers for closed down theatre companies and charities
that benefit theatre personnel in these difficult times. But this production was the closest to a live
theatre performance that I have experienced since last March. My living room felt like an actual theater
and I was as involved as I am during a regular season in NYC theaters. Truly as
Tiny Tim reminds us “a Merry Christmas to us all.”
P.S. This is also a fund-raiser for non-Broadway and regional companies.
Mank on Netflix
The blurb on Netflix that describes “Mank,” its recent much advertised must-see, claims “Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing wit and the alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish “Citizen Kane.” Unfortunately, the film does not live up to the expectations that its advertising creates.
While this film by Director David Fincher and his father, the screenwriter, Jack Fincher, was pleasant enough to watch, it was very disappointing. The Finchers seemed more concerned with giving it a style that reminds you of (but does not really replicate) the films of that period than they cared about revealing the central character or his work. Fincher, who passed away in 2003, left a script that depicts Hollywood in the 1930s exactly as legends have convinced it existed. Every character is a larger-than-life version of Hollywood excesses. Almost every scene ends in a witty punchline, but the scene itself has not told us anything we did not already know (or imagined) –with no substance.
Director Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt seem only to be concerned with giving this portrait the “feel” of a movie from the time it portrays. Black and white pseudo-film-noir leaves little room for a “reevaluation” of Hollywood in this period. Instead, we get a series of jumbled scenes and flashbacks that reaffirm the exaggerated depictions of the likes of Louis B. Mayer and Marian Davies. Gary Oldman gives a credible performance as Mankiewicz, but Fincher’s script gives Oldman very little depth to reveal. Mank struggles to finish the first draft of Citizen Kane, but we are never let in on what he struggles with. Instead, there is a constant stream of Hollywood bigwigs who affirm that his work is brilliant, as anyone who has seen Citizen Kane knows.
Aside from a brief encounter with Orson Wells about Mank getting screen credit for the script, there is no portrayal of their work together. Nor is there any real description of any of the reactions of any of the producing parties on the content of the script. Yes, there is oversized wonderment at Mank’s portrayal of William Randolph Hearst, but no exploration of Hearst’s theoretical power to ruin the people behind Mank’s thinly vailed depiction of the media mogul.
However, watching the film is quite pleasant. Mankiewicz’s wit and the short scenes that go from his drunken bedroom to Hollywood in its heyday are quite entertaining, if not informative. Strangely, watching this Netflix offering felt very much like watching a 1930s musical. Just when you expect something serious to happen, you get a witty closing line from Mank, in lieu of a hummable song. This film was disappointing, but distracting in a time when distraction has its own value.
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