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Patrick Stewart: Doing his part, playing 41 others

It's impossible to forget the punch-in-the-gut way we all felt in the weeks and months after 9/11. This story, which I wrote back then, takes me right back to that time, even though it has nothing particular to do with the attack. I love Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and have been in several productions of it. I had cherished seeing Sir Patrick Stewart's one-man version years earlier. Having him back in New York that post-9/11 Christmas was a gift.

The Twin Towers were Patrick Stewart's Al Roker.

"When I was doing the Miller play ("The Ride Down Mount Morgan," last year), I rented a top-floor loft on Walker Street in TriBeCa," Stewart said. "Every morning, I'd look at those Towers to check on what the weather was doing."

So on Sept. 11 - when he was preparing to open in a play in London and heard of the terrorist attacks - "the one place I wanted to be was New York City."

His wife, Wendy Neuss (who grew up in Livingston, N.J.), felt the same way. "We both wished there was something we could do," Stewart said.

"A friend said she wished I was doing `A Christmas Carol' this year. And for two weeks I did nothing. Then I began telling people about (possibly performing ‘A Christmas Carol'), with the idea that the performances would all be benefits."

The show comes during his break from filming "Star Trek: Nemesis," due in theaters in the summer of 2003. He asked the producers if he could moonlight from his role as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard to revive his one-man show. "And the Nederlanders (Broadway producers) and the management have all done a great job to make this happen," he said.

So here he is. Or will be.

Starting Monday - Christmas Eve, no less - Patrick Stewart takes the stage of the Marriott Marquis Theatre (1535 Broadway) as the entire cast of "A Christmas Carol." It is his adaptation of Dickens' classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.

The costumes are simple: coat, shirt, pants, shoes.

The props are limited: a chair, a table, a quill, a blindfold.

"This production was created to travel light," Stewart said. He first performed the adaptation (which he wrote) as a benefit in California in 1985 and brought it to Broadway six years later.

Since Stewart plays all the characters, there's some question over how many he plays. Is it 39 or 41? His vivid portrayals of the flame and the goose open the door to debate. In any case, he inhabits dozens of characters over the course of the evening. Nephew Fred to Fezziwig, Marley to the boy with the goose (to the goose herself).

And Scrooge.

After he emerges, transformed, from the visit of the ghosts, Scrooge wants to laugh. But Stewart doesn't just lean his head back and laugh.

"I thought: ‘What would happen if you hadn't laughed in years? How would the body respond?'' "

The audience watches Scrooge learn how to laugh again.

At first it is caught in his throat, a gasp that gets stuck.

The gasp tries again. Still stuck.

Then again.

Then faster, until gradually, Scrooge jump-starts his giggle into a full-blown guffaw.

A wonderful laugh.

And a slightly different show than the one Stewart brought to Broadway in 1991, '92 and '94. Since then, he has made a feature film of "A Christmas Carol" - albeit playing only one role, the old miser himself. Stewart admits he has "stolen some ideas from my colleagues" on the 1999 Hallmark production.

He'll also add a musical number during the Fezziwig ball, something not exactly in Dickens, but in keeping with the spirit of the season.

He'll do eight performances, all for charity.

"We wanted to find organizations whose work was related to Sept. 11," Stewart said. "Sept. 11 is bringing me back."

The Dec. 29 performance is a gala benefit for The Sept. 11th Campaign of The Actors' Fund of America. The fund provides counseling, care for seniors and the disabled, mental health services, career assistance and also housing and assisted living for those now retired from the footlights.

"Dickens was involved in the issues of the day - children, education, and the poor in general," Stewart said. So the beneficiaries of the seven other performances will be the Coalition for the Homeless and Food for Survival, Inc. These groups, Stewart said, address the central theme of "A Christmas Carol" - helping those who suffer from hunger and lack of shelter.

But even Bob Cratchit got Christmas Day off, despite Scrooge's threat to deduct half a crown from his wages. Does Stewart mind working Christmas Day?

"It will be a busy Christmas, but I can think of no better way to help," he said. "New York in the past 10 or 12 years has been so generous, both professionally and personally. ... I fell in love with the city and the people."

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