The Irrepressible Irish Repertory Theatre

“It was all about me going into a barn and saying: ‘Let’s put on a show.’ That’s what me and Judy did.” Mickey Rooney referring to Babes in Arms.

Actors Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly met on a production of Hugh Leonard’s Summer at Hudson Guild Theater, she acting, he limited to consulting on accents due to union restrictions. When the show moved to Florida, O’Reilly joined the cast. By then, the two were friends.

Brian Murray, Ciaran, Charlotte

Brian Murray, Ciarán O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore in Summer

Discovering unusual likemindedness, they decided, picturesquely chatting at a kitchen table, to found an Irish theater. He had arrived from Ireland so steeped in its dramatic traditions he’d performed in Gaelic, she started with broad appreciation that grew enthused with exposure. O’Reilly put up his savings and the two embarked on a trial and error process neither had ever envisioned. “We made it up as we went along.” (O’Reilly)

The first play under The Irish Repertory Theatre banner was Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars. It had 14 characters and four sets. There was no doubling. “We didn’t know any better” (Moore) The partners rented “the aideenth street playhouse” (O’Reilly’s lilt) Thursday through Sunday. It came with its own lighting designer, who stood on chairs.

The Plough and the Stars- Pom Boyd, Chris Carrick, Tom Delaney

Pom Boyd, Chris Carrick, Tom Delaney in The Plough and The Stars

Moore directed. “I gave her her start…(Moore’s expression is priceless) she made that play sing like no other could.” (O’Reilly – with a distinct twinkle.) “I wasn’t popular. The cast was almost all Irish…” (Moore) Her every move was questioned or corrected. The piece was well received enabling the next production. (O’Reilly began directing in 1997 and now steps in when he feels a special connection to the material.)

When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.  Edna O’Brien

Award winning actor Patrick Fitzgerald who has regularly performed with Irish Rep since its inception, remembers rehearsing in the raw basement of a 16th Street building.  An immigrant bartender at the time, his first role had two lines. “I could see Ciarán peering at me thinking who the feck is this. It was Charlotte who took a second look.”

Fitzgerald saw the partners’ balance from the beginning. Though hands on, O’Reilly was/is often behind the scenes. Talking to him today, one feels, if amiably, measured, something Fitzgerald calls “that farmer blood, recognizing good cattle when he sees it.” Moore, “the southern belle,” has always been the up-front, omnipresent greeter. In person, she flutters slightly, ever warm and alert. O’Reilly might appear with a hammer, Moore is apparently quite good with bandages. “Charlotte says, ‘Yes, we can…la,la,la…’ Ciarán says, ‘Yes, we will.’ Neither ever says it can’t be done.”

Costumes and sets have always been attended to with the highest production values in mind. Fitzgerald tells me O’Reilly helped get Gibralter, Fitzgerald’s adaptation after James Joyce’s Ulysses, produced in Dublin. (It opened the very day Joyce went into Public Domain.) When the piece was presented by Irish Rep in New York, O’Reilly brought over its set and sound designers. I can hear appreciative marvel mixed in with the actor’s brogue. Literally crediting the partners with an acting career established by learning his craft at Irish Rep, Patrick Fitzgerald feels lucky to be part of the family.

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Patrick Fitzgerald and Cara Seymour in Gibralter

In those days, the box office, and its telephone, was in O’Reilly’s apartment. People rang at all hours looking for aisle seats, he recalls wryly. A turning point came when someone on the midnight shift at Time Warner called expecting to leave a message and instead reached the sleepy tenant. Having seen and appreciated Plough, he wanted to know how to donate to the theater. Irish Rep had nonprofit status but as yet hadn’t pursued contributions. It was a wake-up call.

“All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” – Sean O’Casey

Irish Rep’s first Gala (Fundraiser) was hosted by Joe Papp at The Public Theater in 1989. Five years later, the event had ballooned to Broadway. As Moore had known Katharine Hepburn since attending school with her niece, Katharine Houghton, she chanced a call requesting the icon’s participation as host. “She told me I had trapped her and that she would have to have her hair and make-up done which was sooo boring, but that she would do it as she loved the theater….backstage, she was mad as ever…I don’t know why I’m here!” (Moore, imitating Miss Hepburn rather well.)

In fact, Norah Moore (no relation), Miss Hepburn’s housekeeper for 30 years, has been baking soda bread, and sometimes Hepburn’s special brownies for Irish Rep since 1988. (She used to make them for Houghton and Moore.)

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Grandfather of Kings program; Hal Prince

Producer/Director Hal Prince, who had directed Moore in three plays, was so enthusiastic about Irish Rep, he decided to write an adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s biography for them. Clearly undaunted, the theater now produced a play with 18 actors and four musicians managing as well to “build the whole city of Dublin.” (O’Reilly) Grandfather of Kings opened at Theater for the New City. (The company was itinerant, renting from The Actor’s Playhouse, The Public Theater, Tada!…through the first six plays)

Accustomed to “Mary, Pat, and Joe from Queens,” Moore suddenly found herself ushering in such as Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Liza Minnelli, and Elaine from Elaine’s (famous eatery/ literary salon on the Upper East Side). O’Reilly played O’Casey’s brother in the suddenly high profile play.

There’s a moment in narrative when his brother reassures O’Casey who had, on the occasion of his one attempt, been a very bad actor. O’Reilly’s line was “Even the great _____said the only time he’d ever seen a better Father Dolan was the time he played it himself.” Each night the actor would fill in the name of a celebrity in the audience; even the great Melvin Kaminsky (Mel Brooks) he would, for example, declare. (Ann Bancroft and Carl Reiner clapped Brooks on the back.)

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132 West 22nd Street when Moore and O’Reilly found it

Tired of loading sets in and out of various theaters and with some success under their belts, Moore and O’Reilly decided to find a home for Irish Rep. That summer, O’Reilly picked up The New York Times, and said, here’s a place. If Moore could raise a single eyebrow, she would do so relating this.

132 West 22nd Street was an abandoned chemical warehouse. Moore describes it as “super raw.” The partners signed a lease on January 1st with just enough money for the deposit and began a capital campaign that brought modest results. The rest was sweat equity.

tech students and teacher Redmond Burke

Redmond Burke and his helpful students

Friends, family, associates, and strangers showed up in overalls. Redmond Burke of the School of Cooperative Technical Education volunteered his entire class, ostensibly to teach the kids how to build. Irish carpenters would come directly from their day jobs. One worker pointed out the address held significance as Ireland has 32 counties. (“One 32!” is a rallying cry for a United Ireland.) This theater was weaned on good will.

The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.

C.K. Chesterton – ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’

Remarkably, Same Old Moon (Geraldine Aron) opened on September 14, 1990 followed by Philadelphia Here I Come! (Brian Friel). Longtime supporters James and Oona Clare of Gallagher’s Restaurant, “our heroes,” threw gala opening night parties, starting a tradition that lasted ten generous years. (The couple are now members of The Associate Board.)

Philadelphia Here I Come- Ciaran O'Reilly & Patrick Fotzgerald

Ciarán O’Reilly and Patrick Fitzgerald in Philadelphia Here I Come

The stage revolve (a wheel barrow wheel attached to a two horsepower electrical motor that presses against the rim of the stage causing it to turn) kept skidding, so for awhile they had an able-bodied man standing by to push it back during performance. When it poured, dressing rooms flooded. Actors would literally slosh their way onto the stage. “Lighting events” were common. During Tony Walton’s direction of The Importance of Being Earnest, the entire building went black. Their audience was lit, the stage bathed in yellowish, emergency lighting. “Everyone thought it was the most brilliant theatrical effect.” (A grinning Moore.)

I hold that the beginning of modern Irish drama was in the winter of 1898, at a school feast at Coole, when Douglas Hyde and Miss Norma Borthwick acted in Irish in a Punch and Judy show; and the delighted children went back to tell their parents what grand curses ‘An Craoibhin’ had put on the baby and the policeman. Playwright, Augusta, Lady Gregory.

Geddeth Smith, Katie Fabel, Mark Shanahan, Alison Jean White, Patrick Fitzgerald in The Shaughraun by Dion Boucicault (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Earliest pieces produced include an 18th Century restoration drama by Oliver Goldsmith and several works by Dion Boucicault, who not only owned several theaters but started the royalty system for playwrights and instituted fire curtains. During the “strange dark time” after 9/11, Moore felt a connection to the devastated neighborhood and looked for a way to express her empathy.

She adapted one of Boucicault’s plays which was set on the Lower East Side into a musical called The Streets of New York. Excited about the material, she later went down to Florida State University to dig through a trunk of the author’s earlier work, some on napkins and hotel stationery. The enterprise required white gloves and was observed by guards. This team is nothing if not intrepid.

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Production Posters

Contemporary plays are featured in The Irish Repertory Theatre New Works Reading Series which is free to the public. Several pieces have been commissioned. Fully produced modern works have included such writers as Edna Walsh, Laoisa Sexton, and Conor McPherson. McPherson is, in fact, coming in for Shining City, May 17-July 3rd 2016, the inaugural show of Irish Rep’s newly renovated quarters (with thanks to the City of New York, New York State and private donors). The play stars Matthew Broderick who is half Irish and has, with his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, been involved with Irish Rep since 2004.

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Charlotte Moore, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Ciarán O’Reilly at Yeats: A Celebration- Irish Repertory’s 2015 Gala (Photo by James Higgins)

Though it’s not a prerequisite and occurred more at the theater’s start, many actors here are naturally Irish. “Authenticity is heaven. It’s gorgeous to listen to those accents…some who have performed with us often, however, have become native.” (Moore) “While Americans often give the Irish accent a flourish, which is wrong,” O’Reilly adds, “they have a better sense of naturalism in other ways. The Irish tend to be from the British school and put on more of a show.” I ask Fitzgerald about working with his countrymen. His poetic take is, “We know that we know what we know.”

O’Reilly occasionally acts in pieces as well, most recently in Da and Juno and The Paycock. “Ciarán is one of the best actors I know and I know hundreds of actors.” (Moore)

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Moore and O’Reilly enthusiastically start renovations (Photo by James Higgins)

Major renovations began in September 2014. Without visibly dropping a stitch, programs continued at DR2 Theater on East 15th Street. The original 22nd Street venue formally reopens this month. Improvements to the space include a second floor rehearsal studio, a balcony, a lighting grid, updated administrative offices, the redesign of existing seating and interior stairs, a larger stage, renovations to the 54-seat W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre (downstairs), performers’ dressing rooms, and the technicians’ workshop.

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The new Irish Repertory Theatre

Irish Repertory Theatre offers an assortment of period and contemporary plays and musicals. Work by non-Irish authors is exception and must somehow be related as in Take Me Along and New Girl in Town based on plays by Eugene O’Neill. Its small, downstairs, W. Scott McLucas Theater is the perfect setting for intimate presentations such as Paul Durcan’s charming Give Me Your Hand, a poetic walk through The National Gallery of London and Julian Sands’ fascinating one-man show A Celebration of Harold Pinter. Christmas traditionally means a holiday show with the principals often concocting something original, such as Moore’s A Celtic Christmas or O’Reilly’s The Bells of Christmas.

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Katie Fabel, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, John Cullum, Ashley Robinson, Mark Hartman and Jacque Carnahan in A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

“The theater is a place we’ve loved all these years and it hasn’t lost that. It’s been enhanced from what it was, but it’s still what it was.” (Moore) Irish Rep’s welcome, clubhouse feel comes from its staff, not its walls. Thespians often drop in just to chat. The friendly logo, all but unchanged from its origin, depicts a Georgian window and door on which play names are “posted.”

“We Irish prefer embroideries to plain cloth. To us Irish, memory is a canvas–stretched, primed, and ready for painting on. We love the `story’ part of the word `history,’ and we love it trimmed out with color and drama, ribbons and bows. Listen to our tunes, observe a Celtic scroll: we always decorate our essence.”  Frank Delaney, author/broadcaster

The scrappy, smart and celebratory Irish Repertory Theatre entertains 200 people a night between its two venues. Authenticity is as integral as imagination. Whenever a piece is performed here, one knows interpretation is close to the bone.

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Ciarán O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore

Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly, a mutual admiration society, remain infectiously impassioned. It’s not difficult to imagine the two of them embarking on what’s become one of the city’s most vital and venerable theaters, nor for us to reap the benefits for years and years to come.

Irish Repertory’s 2016 Gala Finian’s Rainbow In Concert will take place at Town Hall on Monday, June 13. Hosted by Saoirse Ronan, it features Melissa Errico, Malcom Gets, David Staller, Max Von Essen, Jim Norton and Megan Fairchild from New York City Ballet as Susan the Silent.

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Click for information and tickets to the gala or Shining City.

About Alix Cohen (627 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.