Scrooge Falls Off the Wagon and Onto the Couch at Guild Hall

“Scrooge, the Relapse: A Christmas Carol, Part 2”
Jack Gwaltney, left, and John McCaffrey transformed one of Mr. McCaffrey’s short stories into a play, “Scrooge, the Relapse: A Christmas Carol, Part 2,” which lampoons Charles Dickens’s holiday classic.

At least in the arts world, nothing says “holiday season” quite like a story of despair and disaster followed by a last-ditch miracle of redemption. Of course, the formula goes all the way back to Herod and the origins of Christmas, but Charles Dickens must surely be to blame in creating this modern-day penchant for a seasonal message of hope by introducing us to Ebenezer Scrooge in his 1843 heartwarmer, “A Christmas Carol.” 

It’s the defining tale of good triumphing over evil, goodheartedness and cheer over poverty and misery. Scrooge, whose very name is a byword today for miserliness and misanthropy, morphs overnight — following some soul-searching and supernatural intervention — from cantankerous penny-pincher to a sonorous humanitarian.

“But can a leopard change his spots?” wrote John McCaffrey, an author and lifelong part-time Wainscott resident, in an article titled “The Myth of Overnight Redemption: Scrooge, Relapse, and Emotional Epiphanies,” which was recently published in The Good Men Project, an online magazine.

The answer will be revealed at Guild Hall on Sunday at 4 p.m. Mr. McCaffrey and Jack Gwaltney will present a reading of “Scrooge, the Relapse: A Christmas Carol, Part 2,” a new play conceived and constructed by the duo.

For Mr. McCaffrey, the question began to percolate about 10 years ago, after he saw an Off Off Broadway adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” The notion of a dramatic and sudden transformation, such as the one Scrooge undergoes, seemed unrealistic. Someone displaying such obvious signs of depression and a possible personality disorder, as does Scrooge, Mr. McCaffrey explained last week, could not possibly be instantly fixed. “Surely he would suffer a relapse,” he thought.

In addition to being a published author of several stories, a novel titled “The Book of Ash,” and a short-story collection, “Two Syllable Men,” he is the director of development for the Training Institute for Mental Health, a nonprofit organization that provides affordable psychiatric services in New York City. 

“The mental health component is something that is important to me,” he said. “I understand the issues, and I’m surrounded by people who are depressed and extremely anxious. They cannot be instantly cured.”

As a result, he wrote a six-page short story that was published in a literary magazine. “It was lampooning the Dickens story,” he said. “What would happen to Scrooge after his epiphany?” In his version, Scrooge was visited by three slightly different ghosts: Marx, Freud, and Darwin. The ghosts of consciousness.

Enter Mr. Gwaltney, an actor and producer. He is best known for his role in “Safe,” a 2012 film, and has appeared in numerous television shows such as “Star Trek” and “Law and Order.” The two are longtime friends, having met at a weekly basketball game in the city for actors and artists. Mr. Gwaltney read his friend’s short story and wanted to turn it into a play.

“Jack now knows all about Dickens,” Mr. McCaffrey said with a smile. “I joke that he could teach Dickens at the New School.”

“I know the beautiful side of Dickens,” Mr. Gwaltney corrected his friend, and then launched into a jumbled dissertation on Dickensian narratives, Freudian theories, and Marx’s relevance.

“Marx is very appropriate today . . . the disproportionate wealth . . . what does the holiday spirit mean today? . . . Darwin is all about irrational thinking. . . . Even in Dickens’s time, the spirit of Christmas was dwindling . . . modernity, the Industrial Revolution, ignorance and want . . . chaos or order?”

Clearly, Mr. Gwaltney has studied up on historical thinkers. It took the pair about five years to craft Mr. McCaffrey’s original comedic story into a more darkly humorous play. The overarching goal was to advocate self-awareness — that those suffering from mental health problems should feel comfortable in the middle ground, on the way to recovery, and not expect an overnight cure. 

“John is the one with big ideas,” said Mr. Gwaltney. “And he’s amazing with dialogue.

“Jack is great with characterization,” Mr. McCaffrey said of his writing partner.

During the summers, they spent several weekends brainstorming and working at the McCaffrey family’s house in Wainscott. “We would work on the drive to Long Island,” said Mr. McCaffrey, “then go out fishing, play ball, and work on the way back.”

Originally, “A Christmas Carol” was written as a political manifesto titled “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” Dickens wanted desperately to bridge the inequality and division that was all around him. Abandoning his real-life lecture for fiction, which brought in some much-needed cash, Dickens set his drama upon the collision of a divided society: on one side, an aging, wealthy capitalist; on the other, a young, impoverished family.

He portrayed the holidays as “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts.” He wanted to inspire people to reach out, to change, and open their shut-up hearts.

“What we enjoy is when we find something from the past that still resonates today,” said Mr. McCaffrey, who exudes thoughtfulness. Constructed in three parts, this reworking of the classic tale culminates in Scrooge’s relapse on Dec. 27, three days after his epiphany.

“It’s very Freudian,” Mr. Gwaltney said. “And the Marx scene is actually very scary.”

Gerard Doyle, Tina Jones, and Brian Keene, who are actors based locally, will join Mr. Gwaltney onstage for Sunday’s inaugural reading. The event is free, and a talkback session with the playwrights and actors will follow, in the hope of receiving helpful feedback from the audience.

While the two hope the play will eventually be produced, Mr. Gwaltney is dedicating more of his time now to mentorship programs as well as reading and writing. Mr. McCaffrey is finishing a historical novel, “Killing Orwell,” which is set on the East End during Prohibition and based on stories relayed by his father, who grew up in Wainscott as part of the Irish immigrant community.