Our Pal, Hal
Photo by Henry Dirocco / SCRThere's one vitally important questionany reporter should ask Hal Landon Jr., the Orange County theatrical marvel who, come Nov. 27, will have played Ebenezer Scrooge for an incredible 25 consecutive years in South Coast Repertory's annual production of Jerry Patch's adaptation of Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol.
That question is: Charles Dickens, whose family was sent to debtor's prison when he was 12, wrote this novella as a fiery condemnation of the greed and corruption of Victorian England, as well as a tribute to the inner nobility and virtue of the poor. It's a play that speaks directly to the greed of wealthy people and how they should take care of poor people. It's also a certifiable cash cow for SCR and OC's longest-lasting, most-popular cultural institution. The irony is obvious. So, Hal, do you think audiences adore this play because it reminds them of their responsibility to the poor, or do they like it because it assuages some of their collective guilt in living in one of the most affluent counties in the world's most prosperous and hypocritical nation?
But I didn't ask Hal that question. I asked him one that was kind of similar. But, really, you don't want to put Hal Landon Jr. on the hot seat. The guy oozes niceness and civility and just-plain-cool-dude stuff. Who knows—maybe offstage he kicks puppies and votes Republican, but onstage he always brings a quiet dignity and an ironically detached air that makes all his characters immediately personable and downright likeable.
Even when they're horribly greedy, mean and downright Scrooge-like. We checked in with our pal Hal during A Christmas Carol rehearsals. And we call him our pal because we bestowed upon him a few years ago the highly coveted OC Weekly Theater Award for Lifetime Achievement. We like to think he still proudly displays it on his mantle, even though for all we know, he hocked it on his way home for a dime rock of crack.
OC Weekly: Aren't you sick of this gig yet?
Hal Landon Jr.: Well, you'd kind of think by now I would be tired of it. But truthfully, I look forward to it every year.
You're portraying a character whose very name has become a synonym for miserly. We all know him. Do you play Scrooge on autopilot by now, or do you always find something new and different about the greedy lug?
Over the course of the year, I think about him once in a while, and when November or December starts approaching, the image of the guy begins to appear, and it's always a little different from the year before. And I try to develop that.
At what point over the past quarter-century did you finally "get" Scrooge?
I don't remember the year, but it was fairly recently. I found I was more immersed in the moment and the character's thoughts than ever before, and that was obviously useful. I'm not sure how it happened or why I was able to do that. But then I remembered reading accounts of the Moscow Art Theatre and how they'd rehearse plays for six months. My reaction was what did they do during all that time? Because we rehearse in resident theaters maybe four or five weeks. But then I realized that if you'd taken all the days that I'd rehearsed Scrooge over the years, they amounted to about six months in total. So maybe that's what happened to me. I'd finally had the luxury of time to really sink into the role.
There's a clich in acting that every performer has to find something about his or her character to identify with. Scrooge is just a mean-spirited, crotchety bastard. How does warm and fuzzy Hal Landon Jr. relate to him?
One of the interesting things about this story is that Scrooge rediscovers himself through an act of his subconscious: a dream that awakens him. So that part of Scrooge is always there; it just took this catastrophic night of incredible dreams to bring him back to his true self. So I try [to tap into that] early in the show. I try not to make it too obvious, and the points vary from year to year, but I do try to manifest that "good" part of Scrooge early on.
This is a play in which questions of money never lurk too far beneath the surface. Do you think audiences relate to the show differently in economically tense times?
It does seem that when the economy is in a recession or downturn, during early parts of the run, the audience isn't that enthusiastic about what they're watching. But during the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the change is fairly dramatic in how the audience reacts. You can really tell there's a difference in the spirit of the audience and what they take from what they're watching.
Scrooge: Bush or Kerry?
The Scrooge of the first act would have worked for the Bush campaign, but I'd like to think that the Scrooge of the second act would have been a Kerry man.
You think anyone has ever had sex on the set?
What? The set? They better not have on my bed.
When are you going to finally hang up your stocking cap?
I'm going to do it a little longer. Not forever, but I'm not ready to stop just yet.
The play deals directly with the abuses of capitalism that Dickens saw in Industrial Revolution England, and this is a production that is eaten up by people who reap incredible rewards from that same system some 150 years later. Do you think Dickens' message of the need for the rich to reach out to the poor has any resonance for your audience?
I think it definitely does. That's the power of Dickens' writing. I was just reading some background material on it and what Dickens was thinking about accomplishing with this play. He knew that as long as there was an underclass, as long as there are poor people, somebody's got to help them. He was very active in his time politically in that regard, and I think that's where the power of this comes from.
So many people think all Scrooge wants is money. Do you?
He wants what we all want: satisfaction and happiness. But he's misguided in the first act, thinking that having as much money as possible would bring him that happiness. He thinks that he isn't happy because he doesn't have enough money. Later, he discovers money isn't the end source of happiness. It's reaching out, giving and your relationships with other people.
If Scrooge were a golf club, what would he be?
Oooh, that just sounds hard and tough, doesn't it?
A CHRISTMAS CAROL AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. PREVIEWS BEGIN SAT.; REGULAR RUN BEGINS DEC. 3. TUES.-FRI., 7:30 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 & 7:30 P.M.; SUN. & CHRISTMAS EVE, NOON & 4 P.M.; STUDENT MATINEES DEC. 1 & 2, 11:30 A.M. THROUGH DEC. 26. PREVIEWS, $20-$32; REGULAR RUN, $30-$46.
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