SAN DIEGO — While Jefferson Mays was performing in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" in the fall of 2012 at Hartford Stage, he recalls, his wife kept overhearing variations on the same remark at intermission:
"Isn't it wonderful how they got actors who all look the same to play the different members of the D'Ysquith family?"
"It made me very happy and really depressed, simultaneously," says Mays, who was in fact the only actor cast to play all nine D'Ysquiths (DIE-squiths), aristocrats in line for a dukedom who get inventively bumped off one by one by an ambitious relative.
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The darkly comic musical by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) is based on the 1907 Roy Horniman novel "Israel Rank" (the same book inspired the 1949 film "Kind Hearts and Coronets," featuring Alec Guinness as all of the doomed heirs). It opens Wednesday at San Diego's Old Globe, which co-produced the show with Hartford Stage.
Along with the rest of the original cast, including Ken Barnett as charming, mass-murdering antihero Monty Navarro and Chilina Kennedy and Lisa O'Hare as his competing love interests, Mays is on board to reprise his critically acclaimed performances.
Mays, no stranger to playing multiple roles — he won a Tony Award in 2004 for playing 37 characters in Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning one-man show, "I Am My Own Wife" — describes the challenge of becoming nine D'Ysquiths of diverse ages and genders over the course of a single evening as "more athletic than artistic."
"I try to inhabit each of the characters as fully as I can, however short-lived they are," he says. "But most of my show happens offstage.
"I finish a scene, run hell-for-leather into the wings, in the dark, where I'm set upon by three husky wardrobe women who tear off my clothes, put me in the next costume and give me a squirt of water and dab my face and put on a mustache, or rip off a mustache, and literally shove me back onstage."
"I don't know what we did without Velcro in the American theater," he adds. "It's a miracle substance! People had long intermissions, probably."
He describes his work in the musical as "deliriously fun, if exhausting. I'm not a young man. I'm 47 years old, and I do feel really wrung out at the end of the evening, unable to go out and lead the life of a dissolute and glamorous actor, the sort of behavior they've come to expect from us, so it's pretty much home to a glass of a warm milk, some Dickens, and then bed."
On a Saturday afternoon in Balboa Park, Mays, who stands out from the casually dressed pleasure seekers in a tweed suit under a dashing trench coat and fedora, could himself be an aristocrat transplanted from Edwardian England.
His wife, the Australian actress Susan Lyons, having accompanied him to his interview, kisses him goodbye and heads off to an organ concert nearby.
Neither seems particularly happy about parting, even for an hour.
"We're quite fond of each other," Mays acknowledges wistfully as the distance between them grows.
But the discovery of a pleasant balcony overlooking the Old Globe's matinee crowd seems to restore him. He pulls a chair into a shady spot, joking, "I need to preserve my consumptive pallor for the play."
He is in fact fair-skinned, but his cheeks are pink with health and his eyes as blue as agates. With a crisp, dryly witty conversational style and gentle, courtly manners, he is the very model of a not-so-modern English gentleman, the sort of character he has inhabited in plays such as "Pygmalion" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" for a significant portion of his professional career.
So it's startling to learn that he's American, raised in Clinton, Conn.
Was there anything in his childhood that could account for his predisposition to be so … well … English?
"My mother was a children's librarian," Mays ventures, "and I was raised on lots of English children's literature. It gave me this weird idea that I was English. We didn't have a television — our set fell off a table sometime during the Vietnam War — and so we would read Dickens around the dinner table. Also, I grew up in a neighborhood devoid of other children. There was a lot of playing by myself, wearing last year's Halloween costume and wandering around the yard talking to myself — which may account for my fondness for doing different voices."
When he went off to his local college — Yale University — he planned to become a classics professor, but his interest in Latin and Greek was quickly eclipsed by his extracurricular love of the theater.
"They had about 80 productions a year, in dining halls and on loading docks, and it was all student run," he says. "It was us all being stupid together and figuring things out and challenging and inspiring each other, and that was a purely collaborative experience and, I think, the best training one could possibly have."