Patrick Stewart's one-man version of "A Christmas Carol" struck me as astounding when he first did it 10 years ago. It seems no less so now, the first time he has done it in New York in seven years. It is back, in part, as Stewart's response as an adopted New Yorker to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. All proceeds from the current engagement, which ends Sunday, go to charity. Stewart is appearing in the Marriott Marquis, and part of his achievement is to make this barn of a theater seem intimate. The stage has been extended over what is normally the orchestra pit to bring Stewart closer to the audience, but the feeling of intimacy comes from his sense of how to hold an audience rather than from simple carpentry. The set consists of a lectern, which he never uses, since he knows his text by heart, and several wooden chairs and tables. Even this minimal amount of furniture seems superfluous, since what really fills the large stage is Dickens' words. One of the things that made Dickens unfashionable for many decades was the extravagance of his imagination. He never believed that less is more. He describes Scrooge's house, for example, as an unlikely inhabitant of the odd corner of London in which it stands, as if, when it was "a young house," it had run there in a game of hide-and-seek and never left. In Dickens' world, everything is animated. Everything - a house, a door knocker, a pot of potatoes - is alive. This is what makes him an ideal writer for the stage. If an actor had a voice less musical, less resonant than Stewart's this alive-ness might not be apparent. But Stewart makes everything sing. More important, he makes all of the characters seem individuals. His bald cranium and penetrating eyes make him a truly forbidding Scrooge, but by contorting his body and his voice, he seems just as perfect for the lovable Fezziwig or a whole range of Cratchits. However many times I have heard the story, I always find something new when Stewart tells it. This time, for example, I was struck by Scrooge's brave fiancée, who breaks off their engagement because she feels he has become more enamored of money than he is of her. When they were betrothed they were both poor, she reminds him. She still is. "Would you choose me now?" she asks him. As Stewart plays her, her tone is plaintive rather than accusatory, but what makes the moment powerful is the long pause after her question. Another moment that struck me with new force was when Mrs. Cratchit tells her husband their daughter Martha, who arrived while he was out, won't be coming to Christmas this year. When Martha hears how wounded her father is, she ends the prank quickly, a moving illustration of "family values."
Fred Allen's lighting, as simple but profound as Stewart's staging, heightens the emotional impact of the evening, but ultimately what makes it so overpowering is Stewart's ability to project the work itself, which dramatizes so magically mankind's elemental yearning for self-renewal.