Photo by Anne FishbeinIn the summer of 2000, a one-man play written by Doug Wright began its development process at the Sundance Institute. It concerned the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who somehow made it through both the Nazi and Soviet regimes with teeth mostly intact. In a dowdy dress, Jefferson Mays continues to play von Mahlsdorf (among dozens of other characters) at the Wadsworth Theater (the show closes July 10). It’s the play’s local stop on a national tour that’s been going since I Am My Own Wife grabbed two Tonys (one for Mays’ performance) and a Pulitzer on Broadway, after having been launched at La Jolla Playhouse.In the press offices before previews, Mays arrived in a perfectly tailored jacket,
a straw hat, white shirt and bow tie, a striking image that offset the actor’s
temperate demeanor.
At the risk of indulging in stereotypes, he cautioned, he’s learned something
about regional audiences from the performance. (“The audience is the last actor
to arrive,” he explains.)
“The San Francisco audience was thoughtful and not very forthcoming — hesitant,
politically aware and reluctant to laugh. They would always talk about the play
in metaphorical terms,” Mays says.
“In New York, it was an audience largely of tourists, more irreverent and compelled
to show off — ‘Oh, I get that! I want you to know I get that.’ In the Midwest,
they were very polite, laconic, Lutheran perhaps.”
Mays was particularly stressed by the prospect of an inner-city student matinee
in Chicago. “I was terrified — high schoolers watching a man in a dress; it turned
out to be one of the most accepting audiences I’ve played to. The dress didn’t
figure into it; they were much more invested in the story.
“I just got back from Krakow, Poland — that was a revelation because a lot of
them had firsthand experience of what Charlotte had been through.
“The audiences change you,” Mays adds. “Sometimes I feel like an experiment in
quantum physics — when I was playing in Chicago for those kids, I felt like this
little African-American church lady as Charlotte, because of the way they were
responding. I felt as though I was their grandmother — so I think that’s how the
performance evolves.”
Mays is a skeptic, convinced that each upcoming booking is going to go down in
flames: “This’ll never work on Broadway,” he convinced himself. “The Chicago audience
is used to rough-edged stuff, not this.” None of his fears have been realized.
Well, maybe one. At the Curran, a barn of a theater in San Francisco, he moved
in on the heels of Peter Hall’s production of As You Like It, with its
peat moss–covered set. The moss remained in the air, Mays says, and he remembers
literally gagging his way through the performance. And then there was what Mays
calls “the sonic transmission in a barn.” He could hear one half of the audience
responding to a joke 15 seconds behind the other half.
“I don’t have a TV series,” Mays says, describing the life of a Tony-winning actor
on the road. “You get a better dental plan at Starbucks than as an actor.”
I AM MY OWN WIFE | By DOUG WRIGHT | At Wadsworth Theater, 11301 Wilshire
Blvd., West Los Angeles | Through July 10 | (213) 365-3500

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