Jefferson Mays has the complicated task of embodying eight separate characters in the Broadway musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which opened on November 17. He is more than up for the challenge. In 2004, Mays won the Tony, Drama Desk and just about every theater award available for enacting 40 different characters in I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright’s one-person show about the real-life German transgendered antiquarian Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. So it would seem that his current assignment would be somewhat easier. In Gentleman’s Guide he portrays members of the distinguished D’Ysquith clan, including narcissistic young fop Asquith, addled bishop Ezekial and vicious fox hunter Adalbert, plus two females, crusading philanthropist Hyacinth and terrible actress Salome. But, in Darko Tresnjak’s ingenious production, each meets a grisly musical fate at the hands of usurping distant cousin Monty (Bryce Pinkham), necessitating numerous quick costume changes and dexterous delivery of the intricate lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak. Even when he’s only playing one part, he earns raves, as he did in the Broadway revivals of Pygmalion, Journey’s End and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.
The actor has lived in the East Village with his wife, actress Susan Lyons, since “late in the last century,” he says. We recently asked the performer of multiple personalities 20 questions about his singular view of New York. Not surprisingly, his answers are funny, candid and just slightly off-kilter.
NY: What’s your favorite part of being the entire D’Ysquith Family?
JM: Putting them to bed each night, tucking them in with a kiss on each forehead and a warmed baby bottle of gin by the pillow.
NY: Do you ever dream about being onstage?
JM: My dreams usually consist of me naked or in the wrong costume for a role I haven’t rehearsed and nobody’s given me the script.
NY: What’s your warm-up routine like before a show? Do you have any lucky charms or unusual rituals?
JM: Lots of muttering and humming as we walk the dog each morning. I think I’m in danger of becoming an East Village eccentric.
NY: What’s the most embarrassing (or funniest or weirdest) thing that’s ever happened to you on stage?
JM: Too numerous to count. Public humiliation seems to be part of the game. Maybe failing to remember a new part of the script one night in I Am My Own Wife (a one man play) and being rescued by myself as another character in the scene; my brain almost exploded.
NY: What do you do after a show to unwind?
JM: My wife and I climb into bed and watch old episodes of The Walking Dead. There’s nothing like watching zombies being dismembered and eviscerated to prepare you for a good night’s sleep.
NY: What’s your favorite thing about New York?
JM: The people. Everyone seems to be in pursuit of something fascinating.
NY: What’s your least favorite thing about New York?
JM: The people—too many of them.
NY: What’s one thing every tourist must do when in NYC?
JM: Go to the Tenement Museum down on Orchard Street to experience how earlier immigrant waves of New Yorkers lived.
NY: Favorite only in New York moment?
JM: There was no room in my bag when I was packing to catch the train to Philadelphia for a staged reading of I Am My Own Wife, so I decided to wear my costume of a black dress and headscarf on the subway to Penn Station—no one even raised an eyebrow.
NY: Best/favorite NYC celebrity sighting?
JM: My once daily sighting of fuchsia-fedoraed [the late] Quentin Crisp in the window of the Cooper Square Diner. I still miss him.
NY: Cab, subway, bus or walk?
JM: Yes, yes, yes and yes.
NY: What’s your favorite New York restaurant?
JM: Mas Farmhouse.
NY: What’s the best pizza in NYC?
JM: It used to be Una Pizza Napoletana on E 12th St., but the genius owner ran away to San Francisco; we’ve given up pizza in mourning.
NY: Gray’s Papaya or Magnolia Bakery?
JM: Neither. Ost coffee shop on 12th and Avenue A
NY: Brooklyn Bridge or Chrysler Building?
JM: This feels like Sophie’s choice, but I think I’ll have to go for the Chrysler Building. We can see it from the end of our block and have been known to run up to the corner to catch the moment the lights go on at dusk. Always thrilling. Early in our relationship, I sent a poem to my wife in her native Australia comparing her to “our lady of midtown.”
NY: Where do you go for a post-theater…coffee, glass of wine, dessert, etc.
NY: If family members were coming to the show, where would you recommend they eat around the theater?
JM: The West Bank Cafe on 42nd St. Maybe if they’re lucky they can catch the sublime Dina Martina in a show downstairs at the Laurie Beechman Theater.
NY: Is there a special place/spot in NYC you love the most?
JM: Browsing the Strand bookstore.
NY: What’s your perfect night out in the city?
JM: Walking the length of the High Line, then dinner at Curry-Ya.
NY: What do you most enjoy doing on a day off?
JM: Occupying a sunny bench at Tompkins Square Park dog run.