Gabriel Byrne gives four different kinds of curtain calls in the middle of “Walking With Ghosts,” his lovely solo show opening tonight at Broadway’s Music Box Theater. These are hilarious impersonations of the unconsciously revealing bows by individual members of the amateur theater company where Byrne got his start as an actor at the age of 30, after such failed vocations as seminarian, plumber, dishwasher and toilet attendant.
First Byrne imitates the bow of “the young man with only four lines but he’s thrilled to be there,” then “the modest ingenue who secretly thinks she stole the show,” then old Albert, celebrating his 58th year with the company, and “finally the leading man who is exhausted from the effort of his spectacular performance.”
In “Walking With Ghosts,” Gabriel Byrne stands on the stage telling stories about his life, from his childhood in Dublin through to the early stages of his career as an actor, most of the stories excerpted from his literate memoir of the same title, published last year (Grove Press, 197 pages.) But those quirky curtain calls are among the moments that are unique to the play – and a good example of the pleasures Byrne provides on the stage that are distinct from those on the page. Under the direction of Lonny Price, Byrne’s stories from his life, which are punctuated by brief blackouts, turn from vignettes into scenes.
“Walking With Ghosts” is a modest show, with quiet humor and gentle pathos — which is exactly why it’s so wonderful. Even on Broadway, modesty can be a virtue.
Perhaps modest is the wrong word. It’s what I long have found terrifically appealing in Byrne’s acting – in his manner – but that quality might be better described as natural, thoughtful, sensitive. He has shown himself to be an actor of depth and subtlety whether in his Tony-nominated role as James Tyrone in the 2016 production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or as the Emmy-nominated therapist in the HBO series “In Treatment,” or even playing gangsters in “Miller’s Crossing” or “The Usual Suspects,” which are among the best known of some seventy films in which he’s starred.
Byrne seems effortlessly likable on stage at the Music Box, but, as he reveals during the show, he actually put some effort into it: As a child he memorized a book of a thousand jokes “so that people would like me for making them laugh“ –and then he tells us one of them: “Two cannibals are eating a clown. One says to the other: Does this taste funny to you?”
That early lesson of likability pays off in this dramatized memoirs, as he masterfully sketches the small comedies and unintentionally comic characters in the Dublin of his childhood, including members of his family. He also recreates some bits from variety shows he used to enjoy seeing with one of his sisters.
But Byrne is also vivid in narrating the tragedies and trials of his life. His sister has a mental collapse. His friend Jimmy drowns. His priest abuses him; as a result, he stops wanting to be a priest: “My child’s faith and trust in the world had been destroyed. Hell had lost its power to frighten me and Heaven its ability to comfort.”
It’s not until Act II that he figures out what he wants to do in his life. As a child, his Granny had taken him regularly to what she called the picture show, an outing that always delighted him. His friend Christy reminds him of his cinema-going, and his theatergoing, and suggests he join an amateur drama society; he soon sees an advertisement for one in the newspaper.
“Everyone smiled encouragement. The girls kissed me good night, the men embraced me. Ophelia and Hamlet waved from the platform of the number eleven bus. I realized then I had been so lonely, and this new sense of belonging and purpose overwhelmed me to tears.”
Amateur roles leads to professional, theater to TV and film. Byrne mocks his early performances to comic effect. His only concession to his later fame is an extended scene with Richard Burton; the purpose of it, we eventually realize, is as a cautionary tale. He uses it to segue into his own struggles with alcoholism.
“Walking with Ghosts” the play leaves out a lot of Gabriel Byrne’s life (and even a lot from his book, which is his second memoir; he wrote his first, “Pictures in My Head,” back in 1994.) The omissions are not just about his life after Hollywood stardom. There is no talk of first love, nor mention of any girlfriends, wives or children (He has had them all.) He describes early jobs for which he was comically unsuited, but doesn’t mention that he worked as an archaeologist, armed with a university degree in the field.
His former profession may be a clue to what he’s trying to do with “Walking with Ghosts.” It’s a lyrical excavation. The play ends with some moving (and occasionally mirthful) memories of his mother and his father in their old age, addressed directly to them, and framed as something of an apology to them, for not paying more attention to them, for not having made more of an effort to understand them. They are among the ghosts of the title, but so is their son, whom the performer refers to as “ghost boy” – the child who grew up to be this Gabriel Bryne before us, in the flesh, worthy of applause.
Walking With Ghosts
Music Box Theater through December 30, 2022. Update: It will now close November 20, 2022.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission
Written and performed by Gabriel Byrne
Directed by Lonny Price
Scenic and lighting design by Sinéad McKenna, costume design by Joan O’Clery, sound design and composer Sinéad Diskin