Meet the Mad Hatter of Broadway

Jefferson Mays takes on a crew of doomed aristocrats in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Jefferson Mays in 'A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder."

Jefferson Mays in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.’

Even if one didn’t already exist in his gallery of colorful eccentrics, Jefferson Mays would qualify as the Main Stem’s Mad Hatter. He’s easy to spot at any Broadway opening: He’s the one wearing a hat.

“You can say pathology, you can say fetish,” he offered in a recent interview. “I love hats. I’ve always loved hats.”

His prodigious hat collection has come in handy in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which opens next week at the Walter Kerr Theater. Mr. Mays plays D’Ysquith (pronounced DIE-swith) or, to be exact, eight D’Ysquiths in a neat little row leading to the title of Earl of Highhurst. As they idle impatiently with an advanced sense of entitlement, they dwindle: Monty Navarro, a greedy arriviste newly named ninth-in-the-line-of-succession, has started taking an ax to the family tree, dispatching the remaining D’Ysquiths in a hilariously horrific fashion, clearing his path to Highhurst Castle.

“When I did the first reading,” Mr. Mays said, “I thought, ‘How am I going to differentiate these characters?’ I had a couple of days before the presentation so I ransacked my hat collection and got a bowler, a boater, a Boar War silver topee helmet, a top hat, a fez, several tweed-cloth caps, even one of my wife’s hats—anything I could find and brought them all to the first read-through. Either they’re still in the show now—or a reasonable facsimile of them are. Some actors start with the right shoes. I start with the right hats.”

If this much of the plot has set off a distant ding-a-ling of recognition, you’re not hearing things. The creators of this smart and stylish dark-comedy musical—Robert F. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics)—are drawing from the same source material that provided the absolute capper of England’s early Ealing Studio comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets, which introduced us to a gifted comedian-chameleon named Alec Guinness, playing all eight of the dying aristocrats.

From the evidence on display here and in previous performances, it would be safe to surmise that Mr. Mays is seriously bucking to become the stateside Alec Guinness.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder gives him a strong leg-up on that score.All these people who lie between our ‘hero’ and his (as he sees it) rightful ascendance to the Earldom are a wonderful, horrible, eccentric bunch,” he said. “They personify, each individually, everything that’s wrong with the British Empire. Of course, all seven deadly sins are represented in the D’Ysquiths—with one to spare.”

The one sin-free D’Ysquith, to Mr. Mays’ mind, is Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr. “I think that he’s an honorable man, and, in this, it’s a pleasure to play someone who’s rather decent. He very kindly takes Monty under his wing and helps him along on his path.”

But the rest are a sorry lot. There’s Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, whose showstopping line is “I Don’t Understand the Poor”; Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr., a sexual predator on the underclasses; Lord Henry D’Ysquith, beekeeper and snooty twit; Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith, fitness freak and military man; Rev. Lord Ezekiel D’Ysquith, benignly bonkers cleric; Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey, bad actress; and Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, a missionary-suffragette zealot and society woman who tries to improve things by dragging Africans out of their huts and showing them the ways of the virtues of colonialism.

Some are on stage for only a few seconds before they’re killed off. “It’s quite a challenge to create an impression in the short amount of time I have,” Mr. Mays said. “Many of them have their own song, but I think if each had one it would make a very, very long evening.”

Director Darko Tresnjak, a big noise in regional theater now making his move on Broadway, tried the show out last fall on his current turf (Hartford Stage) and in the spring on his former turf (San Diego’s Old Globe) and, at both stops, was critically embraced. The Times’ Charles Isherwood hit the tom-toms in Hartford that it “ranks among the most inspired and entertaining new musical comedies I’ve seen in years.”

The “varied” and “melodious” score by Mr. Lutvak, a cabaret singer-turned-composer, and the “witty” and “spot-on” lyrics he concocted with Mr. Freedman were particularly cheered.  “The score is sublime—it really is,” seconded Mr. Mays. “It makes me sound like a Philistine saying this, but it’s music you can go out of the theater humming.”

Mr. Lutvak, he pointed out, is a scholar of both popular music and classical music. “So you have everything quoted in this, from Chopin to Sondheim to Gilbert and Sullivan to Noel Coward to Mozart to English music hall to waltzes. It goes all over the place—and to great effect. Nothing is ever jarring, either. It’s rather seamless, just transcendently beautiful music.”

Orchestrator extraordinaire Jonathan Tunick, who rarely strays from Sondheim’s side, prepared the music for an orchestra of 12. These days, that’s positively fat.

Good songs, Mr. Mays said, “do the acting for you—and it is like a magic ride of sorts. You step on and you step off, blissfully at the end of the evening. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve never experienced.”

The Broadway musical may be something Mr. Mays is new to, but multitasking has become an art form with him. He arrived on Broadway in I Am My Own Wife, fragmented into 37 different characters (almost three times Sally Field’s Sybil) so the eight D’Ysquiths confronting him are tantamount to a month in the country.

Although this specialty is pronounced, Mr. Mays refuses to trade off it. “I should be one of those actors who has a list. A lot of people do—‘I wanna do this and this and this’—but I don’t. I enjoy being surprised—indeed, often ambushed—by a role. Think of being called up and hearing, ‘Do you want to be a 65-year-old East German gay transvestite in this play?’ How many times in your life are you going to hear that?”

He heard it just once, and it was “Open Sesame” to the role of a lifetime, the Tony Award and an “overnight” Broadway career established with one lucky blow.

Doug Wright was on the other end of that phone, inviting him to come to Sundance to work on a play that was still in Mr. Wright’s head. The two had been friends since working together on Quills (Mr. Mays had played the hospital administrator lording over the Marquis de Sade)—and a friend was what was needed here to read back the play that was spilling out. “He felt guilty asking Sundance, at great expense, to fly in a cast of people he wasn’t sure he’d need. He said, ‘I don’t really have a play yet. I just have stuff you read back to me as I write it.’ Then, from there, it developed into what it was.” I Am My Own Wife, won Wright the Tony, too—and the Pulitzer Prize—and became the most-often produced play for several years after its Broadway run.

But Mr. Mays doesn’t envy the regional actors who now have to wrestle that bear of a play to the ground. “I think if I were to confront that finished play now as an actor, I would be shattered to the point of paralysis,” he said. What he did—now it can be told—was ease into the role(s) in increments. The process—one actor doing many roles—became the play: Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and the people in her life.

He went the multi-character route only one other time, in an adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which he was Charles Dodson (read: Lewis Carroll) telling Alice the story by acting out The Mock Turtle, The March Hare, assorted Queens, and, of course, The Mad Hatter. “It’s euphoria,” he said, “jumping wildly from persona to persona on the stage.”

When he’s in a single role, it tends to be an idiosyncratic one: St. John Quartermaine, the musical and nonmusical Henry Higgins, the milquetoast with a history-altering secret in The Best Man, the cook in Journey’s End, Alexander Throttlebottom, the Manchester MI6 spy in Blood and Gift and that mother of them all, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. “It’s an endless source of frustration for my agents, I’m sure, trying to figure out where to put me next, but I’ve been very fortunate—and I’ve been able to fall in, almost literally, to some very, very interesting projects.”

In all of the above, hats make the characters—which is why, on the rainy Tuesday afternoon on which The Observer spoke with him, it was a bit disconcerting when Mr. Mays arrived at Café Orlin disguised as a civilian—in Yankee baseball cap! “I know,” he said sheepishly. “I actually came out of the building wearing my Panama hat, but I thought, ‘Well, it’s going to be wet burlap by the time I get home,’ so I went back and put this on out of practicality.”

As for how he became enamored of hats in the first place, “As a child, I would wake up in the morning and put on a different hat. Just the other day I read that, in espionage, if you are being shadowed by someone, the best way to disappear is to change your hat. It will completely throw off the most astute tail—that’s the cheap, easy way. Maybe I’m always trying to hide. Maybe that’s what led to my interest in becoming an actor.”