On the one hand, if you’re hoping to leave the theater thinking you know Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, you’ll be disappointed. On the other, you will learn who he was in an entirely genial and entertaining fashion. A vivid and poetic storyteller deftly brandishing vernacular, he reminds one of Dylan Thomas. The first hour goes by in a blink. Another will happily follow.
A nun appears with “huge plastic wings growing out of her head,” his boyhood theory about souls is priceless, a neighbor’s new teeth were “like bridges in her mouth,” he and the boys “blew pretend smoke from licorice cigarettes hopin’ to get caught,” his mother orders from a waitress at a Dublin hotel “and her voice goes all lah-dee-dah…I had never before heard her called madam.” Byrne eventually rented “the only flat in Dublin where you’d have to wipe your feet on the way out.”
It’s not that the actor isn’t candid. Alcoholism (he’s 28 years sober), his sister’s mental illness, witnessing the accidental death of a boyhood friend, and priestly molestation (he studied for the cloth) are enacted. No stranger to guilt and humiliation, the actor is as open about his failures as he is about trauma. There are also, notably, several revelations.
Unlike many Irish and British thespians (and alcoholics) of his generation, however, he had a happy, if poor childhood. Sharing this showcases a lighter side – comedic skills rarely tapped in his professional life. Byrne is a good mimic and physically clowns with a twinkle in his eye. Recalling a disastrous audition, he ably makes fun of himself.
His father determined the young man should have a trade and set him up as a plumbing and heating intern. “There were stories of legendary plumbers.” He cleaned toilets and washed dishes. Amateur theater was something he stumbled into looking for much needed community, “a sense of belonging and purpose.” He found it.
Curiously the past doesn’t illuminate the present. We end with his parents’ respective deaths foregoing adult personal and professional relationships (but for a neat glimpse of Richard Burton), romance, and the development of his film and television career. Expect volume two of the memoir on which this was based, often verbatim. “Acting is the art of judicious exaggeration.”
Director Lonny Price manages to keep Byrne’s walking, then perching, seem organic and reflective between enacting characters. Pacing is pitch-perfect. The raconteur actually seems relaxed. Variations on Irish accents and portrayal of women is never reduced to camp.
In a genre (solo performance) whose set is often negligible, Sinead McKenna (set and lighting) offers an imaginative back wall that looks like shattered glass. Sometimes the crack lines color. In masterful control of light, Byrne’s shadow might appear upside down on the surface or reflect the actor on stage. A carnival elicits midway lights as if strung. Terrific. And difficult.
Sinead Diskin’s sound design and original music works insidiously to enrich scenarios.
Photos by Emilio Madrid
Gabriel Bryne: Walking With Ghosts
Written and Performed by Gabriel Bryne
Based on his book
Directed by Lonny Price
The Music Box
239 West 45th Street