A simple little black dress and pearls are the staples of many women’s wardrobes. The same goes for actor Jefferson Mays.ght, Mr. Mays dons a black frock and a string of pearls to portray the 65-year-old East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorfname cq, a real-life eccentric who outlasted both the Nazis and the oppression of the communist regime, in Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “I Am My Own Wife.”“For that added note of authenticity, I also wear pantyhose and lace knickers,” Mr. Mays says during a telephone interview from his home in New York, where he is recovering from the flu by lying in bed and reading Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” aloud to his wife, Australian actress Susan Lyons. “Two hours in a dress eight times a week is enough.” Mays’ sacrifices for art have paid off handsomely. Last year, he won the Tony for best actor as well as the Drama Desk, Obie, Drama League and Outer Critics awards. For good reason. Miss von Mahlsdorf is no outlandish, finger-popping RuPaul-style cross-dresser. She is instead an elegantly mannered relic of the past, someone who created a private museum in Berlin stuffed with fancy furniture, objets d’artd gramophones dating from the era of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The cellar of the museum holds the fixtures of an infamous Weimar-era bar she saved from the wrecking ball.cause of the Tony and the great critical reception ‘I Am My Own Wife’ received on Broadway, the producers decided to do a tour, which is pretty much unheard of for a drama,” Mr. Mayses says. “I didn’t think the play would fly out of town, but when we were in Chicago at the Goodman, there were lines around the block.”Now at Washington’s National Theatrecq through April 10cq, “I Am My Own Wife” is directed by Moises Kaufman, who is known to local audiences for his plays “The Laramie Project” and “Gross Indecency.” Mr. Mays portrays dozens of characters in the one-man play, including Miss von Mahlsdorf and the playwright.
“That was the hardest part, because most playwrights have the decency to be dead,” he says. “It is very difficult to imitate someone who is a friend, but very sweetly and masochistically, Doug asked me to do a gross caricature and then pull back. The key to Doug is his voice, which someone described to me as what would happen if a very ripe avocado could talk.”
The process of getting the rest of “I Am My Own Wife” from page to stage was more arduous. In 2000, Mr. Wright invited Mr. Mays and Mr. Kaufman to the Sundance Institute in Utah to work on the script. “He was having writer’s block and wanted an actor to read aloud from the transcripts of his interviews with Charlotte,” Mr. Mays says. “To relieve the monotony, I’d do the various characters.”
Mr. Kaufman suggested a homework assignment — that everyone come up with a five-minute playlet based on the transcripts. “Doug did a gay guide to East Berlin, Moises put on a black dress, and I made tiny furniture from her museum using index cards and a pair of manicure scissors and put them in a shoe box. They were a virtual tour of her museum.”
Mr. Mays pored over the catalog of items from her museum, each object exquisitely preserved, and found himself greatly touched, he says, by her mania for collecting.
“There was a huge amount of furniture from her youth, and somehow that moved me,” he recalls. “It is such a human thing to do, and her desire to collect was a buffer against age and time. Arranging, preserving and presenting history were her way of dealing with the past.”
Miss von Mahlsdorf died in 2002. The actor never got to meet her, but he says he hopes to visit her museum this summer.
Before going to New York in 2003, “I Am My Own Wife” was worked on further at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, “where we began to be more true to the enigmatic spirit of Charlotte,” Mr. Mays says. “There are so many unresolved questions about her story and her alleged heroism.”
After nearly five years of living with Miss von Mahlsdorf, Mr. Mays says he still feels that he does not completely know her. “It’s odd; I feel as though she is still elusive,” he says. “Her personal mythologies are never completely reconciled. She is an unsolvable riddle.”
Mr. Mays has been named an associate artist at Baltimore’s Centerstage, where he appeared in productions of “Peter Pan,” “The Winter’s Tale,” “Triumph of Love” and “She Stoops to Conquer.” He says he is anxious to get back there when the tour ends.
“Hopefully, someday I’ll have a role where I get to wear pants,” he says.
WHAT: “I Am My Own Wife”
WHERE: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
WHEN: Through April 10
TICKETS: $36.25 to $71.25