Elmore James as Scrooge.
PHOTOS BY LOU MONTESANO
By Orla O’Sullivan
Readers have only a few days left to re-enact a Christmas tradition observed by Charles Dickens: a live reading of his hit novella, “A Christmas Carol” in abridged form. Friday marks the end of a run almost as fleeting as last weekend’s snow.
To add to the sense of going back in time, Origin Theatre stages its performance in the parlor of a Manhattan brownstone that was built in 1910–only about 50 years after Dickens used to perform his Scrooge-centered story in his country home in Kent, England.
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In the intimate setting of 435 West 22nd St., 30 or so people enjoy mulled wine and mince pies amid flickering candles and Christmas decorations. Audience members could be forgiven for expecting to be gathered around the piano to sing songs. They are, however, invited to join in the carols sung by three professionals in Victorian attire – Connor Delves, Manny Dunn, and the angelically sweet-voiced Eliza Shea.) And join in they did, last Tuesday, one wearing a sweater with lights on it, not subdued by downpours outside, though attendance reportedly was lower than the full-houses enjoyed on the first few nights.
Connor Delves, Manny Dunn and Eliza Shea.
Whether the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come will make his presence felt, as he did last week, is not guaranteed, though a good time seems assured. (On Tuesday, as Elmore James, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge and all the other characters, looked to a doorway through which he expected the third and final ghost to visit him on Christmas Eve, Christmas cards hanging over the doorway fell as if disturbed by some invisible presence.)
James – a legendary performer who has done everything from singing opera at the Metropolitan Opera to dancing with Alvin Ailey, touring with Liza Minnelli, and performing at the White House – made his own dramatic appearance through that doorway.
A jovial “Jingle Bells” ends with a crack of thunder, the carolers exit, and James enters, an imposing figure declaring in a booming voice, “Jacob Marley was dead: to begin with…”
Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner and sole friend, is the first spirit who will visit Scrooge, followed by ghosts depicting his past, his present and doomed future—unless he renounce his misanthropic, miserly ways and reconnects with humanity.
James brings his resonant gravitas and operatic talents to bear and shares several in-jokes with the audience as his walks about the room enacting the different characters.
Among them, befitting of the Chelsea neighborhood where the performance takes place, the African-American actor draws a knowing laugh when he places particular emphasis on the description of a character and “her brother’s particular friend the milkman.”
One off-note is James’s almost snide Marley. It’s less effective, for example, than the rueful portrayal by Michael Hordern found in the classic 1951 film version of “A Christmas Carol,” with Alastair Sim as Scrooge.
Also absent—though much has to be cut for a reading—was the explanation of what made Scrooge as he was – the father who rejected him because his mother died in childbirth. (Less about Scrooge’s former employer and more about why; were Scrooge alive today he would be in therapy?)
Origin works off of Dickens’s own abridged version of his book, which he performed in 90 minutes. Origin’s runs maybe 75 minutes, with further tweaks by James and director Erwin Mass. (Mass directed Origin’s critically acclaimed play “Poison.”)
Origin first staged Dickens’s Scrooge play three years ago at the American Irish Historical Society. That institution currently is hosting a dinner-play version of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre. Now in its second year there, “The Dead, 1904” runs trhough Jan 7.
Meanwhile this week readers can catch Origin’s show, playing in the former home of an acting star couple Rip Torn and the late Geraldine Page. Readers can also, at their leisure, find a manuscript copy of Dickens performance version of “A Christmas Carol” at the New York Public Library.
Origin Theatre Company’s abridged version of “A Christmas Carol,” a solo show starring Elmore James, runs at 435 W. 22nd St. until Friday. For tickets, which are $65, call 866-811-4111 or visit www.origintheatre.org.