The ghosts of Gabriel Byrne: Walking With Ghosts, the engrossing new one-man play on Broadway, are not those of Charles Dickens or even Conor McPherson. They are phantoms of Byrne’s memory who are fading with the years, but that doesn’t make them any less haunting. In fact, the opposite is often true. Some are to be embraced; others are to be let go; all are to be dealt with.
Adapted by Byrne from his memoirs of the same title, Walking With Ghosts is a bildungsroman, telling Byrne’s story of growing up in and around Dublin and how that formed him as a man and an artist.
In addition to being a gifted actor, Byrne is a gifted writer. His memoir has moved easily (at least to an outsider) from the page to the stage. This two-hour monologue is well-written, well-paced and well-acted. In its best moments, and there are many best moments, one is reminded of the Dylan Thomas classic A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Walking With Ghosts is sometimes funny, sometimes dark, always lyrical and always engrossing.
One should not be misled by the cast list: This is a multicharacter play with enough plot and incident to fill a dozen plays. The stage is almost bare, just a table and some seats. But the theater is filled with the ghosts of Byrne’s family, friends, acquaintances and a few enemies. Their encounters are alternately rough, funny and even violent but always brutally honest.
Byrne knows how to structure his scenes for maximum effect. It’s not insignificant that the play begins with a dream, a dream that sends him “home” to Dublin. Walking With Ghosts is a nice blend of the real and the surreal. And present-day Dublin seems less real than the past.
His stories of growing up Catholic and his literal (mis)interpretation of the catechism are hysterical. As many Catholic boys did, he grew up wanting to become a priest, even going into the seminary in England. But for reasons he makes clear later, that did not take. And a succession of jobs followed.
Walking With Ghosts is peopled with “characters” (his emphasis) who were larger than life to the young Gabriel and who have mostly grown in stature since. There is his grandmother who brings him to the heretofore forbidden place called “the picture show,” which opens up a whole new world to him. One might think this was what inspired him to pursue a career in acting, but that was more by chance: an ad for “amateur actors for Shakespearean play. No experience necessary.” Acceptance by that group of characters made him realize how lonely he had been and how theater gave him a sense of belonging.
For a show that has much to say about mortality and death, Walking With Ghosts is nevertheless a very funny show. Byrne’s comic timing is spot on, and he shifts easily from character to character to narrator and from happy to sad. And that is all for the best, Walking With Ghosts is a very Irish play in that it is often at its funniest when it is at its most sad.
Byrne has had a long and successful career on stage, in the movies and on TV Over the years, has played a wide variety of roles from Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, Lionel Powers in Weapons of Mass Distraction, to Paul Weston in In Treatment. And while Walking With Ghosts barely touches on his show business success, one gets glimpses of some of those characters. For the most part in Walking With Ghosts, he is closer to the introspective Weston, though in his darker moments he can summon up a little Söze or a touch of Powers.
Unsurprisingly, Byrne is an ingratiating figure who can hold the stage. Anyone who saw his Jamie Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten, knows he is as much at home on the stage as on the screen.
Walking With Ghosts is directed with exquisite simplicity by Lonny Price, whose documentary The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened has become an instant classic. Most of the play involves Byrne just pacing back and forth across the Music Box’s stage. But that allows the audience to savor the stories, the words and Byrne’s inflection.
Having seen many Irish and Irish-American plays on Broadway, at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the Origin Theatre and the Irish Arts Center, I am becoming convinced there must be an Irish gene or an I chromosome that leaves its people and ex-pats genetically predisposed to tell great stories on the stage. And Walking With Ghosts has many great stories that make for a great evening in the theater.
Gabriel Byrne: Walking With Ghosts is playing at New York’s Music Box Theatre 239 West 45th Street, New York through December 30. For more information and tickets go to GabrielByrneOnBroadway.com.
The post A Haunting ‘Gabriel Byrne: Walking With Ghosts’ Comes to Broadway appeared first on Newsweek.