The reflections of any literate Irish actor can normally be counted upon to produce a half-decent evening of theater, but Gabriel Byrne’s episodic two-act monologue “Walking with Ghosts” (which is closing early on November 20 following poor ticket sales) gets off to a shaky start. Telling his life story in chapters separated by blackouts, the veteran television and screen actor offers a series of not-especially-interesting anecdotes about growing up in Dublin, closing the first act by crying mawkishly to the younger version of himself, “Run, ghost boy, run!” Fondly he recalls going to tea with Mammy and visiting a carnival set up as a gift to the citizens by the owners of the Guinness brewery, where his father made barrels, to mark its bicentennial (which would have been in 1959, when Byrne turned nine). Not so fondly he recalls a brief interlude as a seminarian in London, where as a teen he was molested by a priest. He also witnessed the drowning of a boyhood friend, Jimmy.
Such memories produce some poignant, painfully tense interludes on the stage, and Byrne delivers his accounts of them with great sincerity. It takes some courage to confront these memories so directly, night after night. But such events, for a man of his generation (Byrne is an impressively well-kept seventy-two) are not particularly unusual, and Byrne is not a powerful enough writer to imbue his thoughts with any special weight. Nor is his running metaphor about memories lingering as ghosts a particularly original one.
Although he is a fine actor who performs lightly amusing impressions of the various characters encountered along the way, Byrne isn’t a natural mimic either, and so his fairly ordinary childhood seems too small to command a Broadway theater. When Byrne turns to even more pedestrian memories such as the kindness of his grandmother, the effect is closer to soporific than spellbinding. Those audience members who depart at intermission can be forgiven.
Things pick up considerably after the break, however, because that’s when Byrne delves into experiences that very few of us have shared. He had a rumbustious early career as a touring actor—Byrne says he simply answered an advertisement to join a troupe of amateur thespians, and before he knew it he was cast on Ireland’s biggest nighttime soap, The Riordans, where he made such an impression that a spinoff show was created with him as its star back in the early Eighties. He shortly became a celebrity in Ireland, then went international. How many men can say they spent a night in a hotel room burning through three bottles of whiskey with Richard Burton? On an early project—he doesn’t tell us which one, although it would have been the television miniseries Wagner, in which Burton played the Romantic composer and Byrne had a small part—the two bonded as Burton spoke of the meaninglessness of fame. He died at fifty-eight a year after the ten-hour film was televised. Byrne notes that crystallized alcohol was found coating his spine (though the proximate cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage).
It was another decade and a half before Byrne pried himself away from the bottle that had destroyed his colleague. As the director, Lonny Price, fills up the sonic background with merry pub sounds, Byrne recalls the delights of a drinking life—the conviviality, the loss of shyness around women. But he reached a low when he found himself sleeping in a London doorway. He later woke up in bed with an unknown woman. Byrne’s thoughts about how he confronted his vice and conquered it—he is now sober for more than twenty-four years—have the specificity and gravity that is missing from much of the first act. A long story about how his sister descended into mental illness (possibly as a result of the abuse of hallucinogenic drugs, although Byrne is a bit vague on the matter) and died at age thirty-two is appropriately heartbreaking.
Broadway is always hungry for a confirmed movie star, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that Byrne managed to book his monologue at the Music Box Theatre, but the house was unsurprisingly mostly empty on the night I attended, and so the show is sputtering to a close. Should Byrne continue to present this show in the future, he would be wise to trim it to a single act and perform it in appropriately intimate spaces. His reflections would have much more impact in a 299-seater off-Broadway.