Holiday Arts Guide: Inside Mullingar

Stage heavy Brían F. O'Byrne confronts a "slight" romantic comedy

He was a pedophile priest. She was a naïve nun. How could they not fall in love?

Depending on your predilections, the Tony-nominated actors Brían F. O'Byrne and Heather Goldenhersh met cute or met queasy, starring in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, first at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2004 and then on Broadway. Onstage, her Sister James suspected his Father Flynn of sexual misconduct. Offstage, a subsequent wedding and two children suggest a happier relationship.

"It's crazy, yeah," O'Byrne says, on a jittery Skype call from Romania, where he's working on a John Boorman film. "I couldn't be happier; she could do better."

O'Byrne: troubled characters a specialty
Andrew Eccles
O'Byrne: troubled characters a specialty

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Unless you count Martin McDonagh's riotously violent The Beauty Queen of Leenane, in which O'Byrne played a gentleman caller, Doubt is the closest the actor has ever previously come to a romantic comedy. (And if you do count Beauty Queen, please never date. And stay away from fire irons.) Instead, O'Byrne has made a specialty of chilling, troubled characters in chilling, troubling plays.

All this made the announcement that O'Byrne would take a starring role in Outside Mullingar, which begins previews at Manhattan Theatre Club just after New Year's, such a shock.

Outside Mullingar, which reunites O'Byrne with playwright Shanley and director Doug Hughes, is an altogether gentler work. O'Byrne plays Anthony, the eccentric owner of a rural Irish farm. Debra Messing, late of Smash, plays Rosemary, the neighbor who sets her amorous sights on him, despite his peculiarities.

And those peculiarities are ample. Anthony's father describes him as "half ghost and mad as the full moon." Anthony himself announces, "My eyes are like jails, and I'm inside." Before the play closes, he'll confess to more extraordinary eccentricities.

"It's so incredibly slight," O'Byrne says of Shanley's script. "But I think it's quite beautiful. There's a lightness to it. If we can get away with this, it could be magical."

Anthony shares some of the emotional distance that has defined O'Byrne's signal roles, like the haunted psychologist in Conor McPherson's Shining City and the child murderer in Bryony Lavery's Frozen. But you couldn't call these plays — or any other O'Byrne has taken on — light or slight or magical, which makes Anthony seem an odd choice.

Of course, if you peer beyond O'Byrne's string of successes, his career has included a wealth of odd choices and happy accidents. Born into a rural Irish enclave much like Mullingar, he notes, "I didn't come from any theater background or film background. I had only seen a couple of movies before I was 18."

Having scored poorly on his high school exams, he took himself to Dublin, where he fell in with a couple of friends who were auditioning for Trinity College's acting program. O'Byrne decided to audition, too. Even though he flubbed the first round — entirely failing to memorize a Shakespeare monologue — he impressed the auditors in a later round. "Theater games are very similar to what you do when you're stoned," he observes.

Following graduation, O'Byrne decided he didn't have much to offer the theatrical world and trailed a girlfriend to London, lingering there until he learned that he'd won a U.S. green card he hadn't even applied for. His uncle had put his name and address into a lottery.

Shortly after landing in New York, he booked a job at the Irish Repertory Theater, opposite Frank McCourt, who would go on to publish Angela's Ashes a few years later. He worked on and off for a few years before deciding to return to Ireland, the better to expose himself to new writers such as McPherson and McDonagh.

He'd just been fired from a play at the Dublin's Gate Theatre — "I don't disagree with the firing. I stayed out and partied all night and missed the first run-through" — when the celebrated director Garry Hynes phoned him. She'd just lost an actor to illness and offered him a role in Beauty Queen, noting that he was at least a decade too young for it. O'Byrne took the role. His career has rarely slowed since.

O'Byrne has a distinct, somewhat pinched appearance — long face and nose, narrow eyes and mouth. But it isn't the face you notice so much as what's behind it.

As Hughes, who has directed O'Byrne in Frozen and Doubt, says, "The inner pictures are forming constantly when you watch a performance of Brían's. There's always something going on other than the text. He has a radiance and a danger that make you want to pay attention."

In person (well, via Skype), he's much looser and funnier, often profane, but you still have that sense of cogs and wheels turning behind the conversation. O'Byrne speaks about his artistic process with some reluctance, as he resists appearing phony or self-important. But he does describe a method that seems more intellectual than straightforwardly emotional.

"There are people who use stuff from their own lives. I don't do that," he says. "When I see a character I think why the hell does that person behave in that way?"

He likes to choose characters as unlike him as possible. Each new role sends him down rabbit holes of research, unearthing aspects of personality that he can draw upon, even if the audience never sees them. Sometimes what he finds disturbs him, yet it provides a scaffolding for his characters. In preparing Frozen, for example, he read about a pedophile who had an obsession with the size of orifices, and used this to help create Frozen's murderous Ralph. "I discovered this incredible world which is nothing to do with what you see," he says.

As O'Byrne has yet to start rehearsal for Outside Mullingar, he doesn't yet know what discovery will unlock Anthony for him. He speaks of finding "a place of utter sincerity" and working "in an utterly unaffected, unassuming way." Suddenly he catches himself: "When I hear actors talking about fucking truth or any of that bullshit, I roll my eyes."

But, almost unwillingly, he returns to the idea of the simplicity and truthfulness Mullingar will require in order to portray the modest, wrenching power of seeing two people who have long denied love finally find it. "We're not looking at why relationships don't work out — the trauma, the abuse, the dark secrets," says O'Byrne. "We're actually just saying, 'It's OK to fall in love.'"

Outside Mullingar

By John Patrick Shanley Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street 212-239-6200 manhattantheatreclub.com January 3–March 16, $67–$125

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