Volume 19 Issue 47 | April 6 - 12, 2007

Photo by Paul Kolnik

Tony-winning Jefferson Mays (left) with Hugh Dancy in the stirring revival of R.C. Sherriff’s WWI drama, “Journey’s End,” the play that had made Mays, as a 12-year-old kid, want to become an actor.

The unended journey from boyhood to B’way

By Jerry Tallmer

Jefferson Mays can do more with three words than other people can do with a thousand. He does it by — as it might seem, and that’s the ballgame — doing nothing.

The three words are: “Very good, sir,” which Mays as Mason, the officers’ cook, down in the trenches, has to say in response to this officer and that officer at intervals throughout “Journey’s End,” the 1928 R.C. Sherriff heartbursting World War I drama now in a faithful, stirring production at the Belasco. Mason, with clipped, working-class irony, gets to say a few other things too, mostly to do with the mix-up or shortage of food supplies (pineapple  chunks, pepper, lean bacon) in the British dugouts before St.-Quentin in the third week of March 1918, just before the start of the last great German offensive under Ludendorff. But always Mason’s responses are sprinkled with “Very good, sir.”

Downstairs at the Belasco stage door, a drama critic named Rick Buzzacco — he’s also the doorkeeper — has already expounded on the power of Mays’s minimalism. “Subtlety can be very strong,” Buzzacco says. “Sometimes not saying something can say more than what’s actually said.” Then: “He’s a nice guy, this Jefferson Mays.”

In his last previous appearance on Broadway, solo, playing 40 people — “37 people,” Mays, upstairs in his dressing room, corrects a journalist for accuracy — the winner of the 2004 Tony Award (plus a fistful of other awards) for Best Actor in a Play must have spoken far more than a thousand words, many of them while wearing a dress as the aging Berlin transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” directed by Moisés Kaufman.

After its New York run, that production went to London and elsewhere around the world. While in London at the Duke of York’s, Mays on an off day took himself to the New Ambassador to experience the “Journey’s End,” directed by David Grindley, that, having opened for an eight-week run, was then in its second smash year. It wasn’t the first time Jefferson Mays had ever seen “Journey’s End.” The first time was one summer at New Haven’s Long Wharf when he, Mays, was 12 years old — his parents were Long Wharf subscribers — “and it changed my life.”

That show’s stars — unforgettable to Mays — were Edward Herrmann as Captain Stanhope, the taut-nerved 21-year-old commanding officer whose discipline and heroics are fueled by booze, and John McMartin as the stoic 45-year-old Lieutenant Osborne whom the younger man fondly addresses as “Uncle.”

“A gorgeous play,” says Mays, “and a seminal moment for me” — the moment in which the 12-year-old kid from Clinton, Connecticut, decided to become an actor.

(Sounds pat, doesn’t it? A Tony-winning actor, now appearing in the 2007 New York production of “Journey’s End,” had his entire life’s course determined at age 12 by that very play. Truth, fiction, same strange thing.)

In his dressing room Jefferson Mays picks up the battered, muddied khaki jacket worn by the Mason whom he embodies on stage. “Look at this,” the actor says with enthusiasm. “It was made by the firm that made the originals. Look here” — a tiny field pocket for medical dressings. “And here” — embroidered shoulder insignia: 9th batallion, east surrey regiment. All the show’s sets and costumes — “great, aren’t they?” — are by Jonathan Fensom. Later, Mays will take the journalist out on the empty stage to examine and finger some props that include British wartime newspapers and magazines and cookware (and guns and bayonets) circa 1918. 

“Over the years,” Mays says, “I’ve always talked about this play and have asked a lot of people [producers, directors]   to do it. Finally, December of 2005, I saw that London production. I’d heard of the possibility of David Grindley doing the play in New York, and I went and begged to be in it. My fear was that I would fall through the cracks, too young for Osborne, too old for Stanhope or Raleigh” — the wet-behind-the-ears replacement 2nd lieutenant who has hero-worshiped Stanhope since schooldays. When Grindley offered Mason, Mays grabbed it.

In another century, a fellow I know invented the phrase “nostalgia manqué” for one’s longing, one’s ache, for the experiences, sensations, events, gestalt, images, everything of some particular time before one’s own time on this earth. A nostalgia, for instance, says the journalist to the actor, for the music and everything else to do with World War I.

“I know what you mean,” says Jefferson Mays. “I have it too. I’ve always been a World War I buff. You know, 1928-29 was a singular year for publication by writers who had survived that war — the poems of Siegfried Sassoon, the ‘Goodbye to All That’ of Robert Graves, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque.”

Do you, the journalist asked, know a book called “Her Privates We,” also 1929? By a veteran of those trenches named Frederic Manning? A book so filthy (for its era) that it was given an alternate title: “The Middle Parts of Fortune.”

Mays’s eyes lit up. He grabbed a paperback off his dressing-room shelf and waved it excitedly about. Sure enough, the very same. The actor had been reading that and all the above plus Lyn Macdonald’s “Somme” — “a trench-eye view of history” — plus anything else he could put his hands on, notably Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory” (Oxford, 1975), to Mays “a gorgeous book” that “brings in the music, the literature, the poetry, the history, the day-to-day practical life of that time, the being alive, which is what this play is preoccupied with.”

There is a notable British military historian named Max Arthur, who, among other things, has interviewed as many living veterans of World War I as he could find. Director Grindley had Max Arthur come over to address the troops at the Belasco.

“He was sort of our drill instructor. He gave me this.” Mays unpins from the wall an old sepia photograph of a bunch of Tommies — British soldiers — loading into double-decker London buses for transport to the front somewhere in France.

Jefferson Mays was born June 8, 1965, in New London, Connecticut. His parents are marine artist / retired naval captain Victor Mays and children’s librarian Lynnabeth Mays, similarly retired.

Last time out, the journalist says, you played all those 37 people, now you play just one. Feel odd?

“No, not odd,” says the actor. “It’s rather a relief. Acting on stage with other people again, and not have to make them up. Particularly working with this generous, talented bunch. A lovely way to come back to the theater.”

Mason is just called Mason, nothing else. Does Private Mason have a first name, a fuller name, in his portrayer’s head?

“Yes, he’s Sydney Herbert Mason. Sydney, after my wife’s place of birth, Sydney, Australia. Herbert, after the name of her father, James Herbert Lyons, an ABC [A for Australian] and BBC man who’s just died.”

On the production team of “I Am My Own Wife” was Susan Lyons, Jefferson Mays’s own wife. He indicates another photo on the dressing-room wall. It’s of her next to a German howitzer captured at St.-Quentin. France, “on her birthday — but 1917.”

In your head, Jefferson, does Pvt. Sydney Herbert Mason, officers’ cook on the St.-Quentin front, die?

“Oh yes. Along with all the others. Went west, as they used to say during World War I.”

That’s a lot farther west than 111 West 44th Street, Manhattan, where Pvt. Mason is still scrounging around for the tinned pineapple chunks that will keep Captain Stanhope happy.

JOURNEY’S END. The 1928 play by R.C. Sherriff, directed by David Grindley. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, (212) 239-6200.

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