by Thomas Burns Scully, OnStage New York Critic I’m not by nature a Christmassy person. I don’t hate Christmas, far from it, but I am naturally suspicious of large groups of people insisting that it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Furthermore, the citywide proliferation of Christmas carols, and the idolic worship of effigies of Santa and reindeer puts me more in mind of ‘The Wicker Man’ than good cheer to all mankind. So, bearing that in mind, I was a little nervous about going to Origin Theatre’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol’, nervous that I was going to be bombarded with seasonal platitudes and yuletide cheer ad nauseam. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t, not that yuletide cheer wasn’t present, but there was none of the enforced merriment that seems to go hand in hand with Christmas these days. Something much better was at hand.
The experience of this particular rendition of the Charles Dickens classic begins almost as soon as you enter the performance space. You enter the front doors of The American Irish Historical Society building, just opposite the Met on Central Park East, and you are instantly struck by the beauty of the building. The entryway is decked, almost exclusively, in white marble. You drop off your coat, and sit briefly on a marble bench reading your program. After a short time you are sent up a flight of stairs, and enter an pleasantly grand entry room to the sound of Victorian carolers. These wonderful vocals are provided by the American Academy Choir and the Emerald Footprints Drama Group. They ring in the twelve days of Christmas and so forth while you are handed a mince pie and some mulled wine and start to glow a pleasant, festive glow. By the time the main event is set to begin, you’re feeling pretty comfortable, and ready for a good story.
At this point, the man himself, Charles Dickens, enters down another set of stairs, wishes you a Merry Christmas 1843, and invites you up to his rooms for ‘a little Christmas tale’. You enter a cozy study, sit in a comfy chair, and settle in as Charles tells you the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, three ghosts and Tiny Tim. Unless you’re very out of touch, you probably know how it all goes down; but as the old saying has it, it’s how you tell them. And this one is told very well. Greg Mullavey fills in the role of Dickens. Mullavey’s resume is a long and interesting one, with credits in seemingly everything on and off Broadway, and his performance as Dickens is wonderfully endearing. He reads the story from the book in front of him, just as Dickens is said to have done for a group of his friends when he first wrote ‘Carol’. His voice alternately rasps, quivers, lilts and declares, as he reads each of the characters we know so well. Mullavey’s emotional conviction is strong and forthright, leaving you in no doubt that he wrote all the words in front of him, and he is able to maintain the energy of the piece for the full hour of his reading. The overall effect is something of the ultimate bed-time story, Charles Dickens reading you ‘A Christmas Carol’ by the warm hearth of his own home. If there was a flaw in Mullavey’s performance, it was that his voice was so gentle and soothing that it actually did make we want to curl up by a fireplace and go to sleep. I resisted the temptation, but it took a little effort.
Matt Torney is at the directing helm of this piece. The last show I saw with Torney in charge was ‘Stop the Tempo’ at Arlene’s Grocery. This was also an Origin Theatre affair, and another site specific one to boot. You’ve got to admire the way that he makes use of a space. In ‘Stop the Tempo’ he was able to make a small club backroom feel like a whole city. In ‘A Christmas Carol’ he does almost the opposite. The American Irish Historical Society is a large building, admittedly beautiful, but with the potential to come off as austere and ambassadorial. The kind of place where you can imagine an elderly relative telling you to keep your elbows off the table. Yet Torney manages to make the whole thing feel remarkably intimate. The space is still grand and, aptly, Victorian, but you never feel anything less than welcome and at home.
Other notes of praise are earned by Carol A. Sullivan, the Production Stage Manager, for keeping things running smoothly in a space that was not designed for theatre. In addition, Jenny D. Green’s costuming is pitch and period perfect, completing the mise en scène that begins with the building. Mise en scène is definitely the operative phrase here, as, on the face of it, this production is something of double-down for Origin Theatre. A Christmas production of a well known text, with staging more akin to a reading than a full-blown play, and yet the affair never feels cheap or underwhelming. Perhaps that is the show’s really genius. Audiences have grown to expect Christmas spectacle in the holiday season: Rockette kick-lines, campy Santa gimmicks and pop-stars belting out carols. What is on offer here is Christmas intimacy. An old-fashioned fireside story session (I’m not sure that there was a fireplace in the room, but it felt like there was), a set of angelic carolers, a glass of mulled wine, and a mince pie. Old-fashioned, but not twee. Small-scale, but not lackluster. Slow-paced, but never boring. My kind of Christmas.
A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Presented by Origin Theatre
The American Academy Choir and Emerald Footprints Drama Group
Location: The American Irish Historical Society, 991 5th Avenue, New York NY10028 (at East 80th Street)
For Origin Theatre Company:
Artistic Director: George C. Heslin
General Manager: Paolo Arinci
Director of Programming: Matt Torney
Literary Manager: Rebecca Nesvet
Publicist: Mediablitz, Beck Lee