|WALKING WITH GHOSTS|
The Irish, it has long been said, have been blessed with the gift of gab. But many of their natural-born storytellers have proven equally adept in put their tales down on paper, allowing us to take in their wit and wisdom at our own leisure. Now comes Gabriel Byrne’s affecting solo show, “Walking with Ghosts,” at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, in which the award-winning Irish actor recounts the stories of his life that he penned for the 2020 memoir of the same name. The result is like a book club meeting in which the author does all the talking.
Luckily, Byrne proves to be an appealing, often moving raconteur, keeping our attention for the somewhat overextended 2-hour and 20-minute running time, rarely indulging in mawkish sentimentality. Most of the stories -- many deeply sad and a few expressing joy and wonder – are given just the right tone, allowing us to focus not just on their substance, but their effect on the man Byrne eventually became. While a few can be seen as cautionary tales; as a whole, these “ghost stories” are essentially remembrances of people things and past that still “haunt” Byrne in the present.
Equally fortunate, Byrne proves to be quite good in mimicking the people he’s met along the way, most of whom prove to be the ghosts he has failed to fully exorcise: his hard-working parents; his movie-loving grandmother; the ultra-devoted nun who greeted him on his first day school; his athletic childhood friend, Johnny, who unexpectedly drowned; the priest whose sexual advances made a very young Byrne flee the seminary; and his sister, Marian, who suddenly went “insane” while in England.
There’s even a small segment on the legendary Richard Burton, with whom he got incredibly drunk in Venice while filming the miniseries “Wagner,” and who was, unwittingly a catalyst in Byrne eventually going to rehab and getting sober. However, anyone eagerly awaiting any other dirt on his film and stage career – save a charming recollection of his early days with an amateur acting troupe or his disastrous first attempt at being on television -- should stay home.
In telling these deeply personal stories, Byrne gets minimal help from Sinead McKenna’s set (a stool, a desk and a backdrop representing a shattered mirror), a few well-chosen sound effects by designer Sinead Diskin, and Lonny Price’s nearly invisible direction (although the blackouts after every “chapter” start to feel gratuitous and may lead you to rush to the bathroom before intermission.)
Indeed, it’s hard not to imagine this show might have been even more effective in a small, undecorated black box, as the Music Box lacks the intimacy the show really requires. One wants to be able to walk with Byrne through the hills and streets of Ireland, even when the journey is ultimately unpleasant, rather than viewing them from a distance.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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