By: Samuel L. Leiter
October 30, 2022: All of us walk with ghosts, our memories—sometimes blurred, sometimes burning bright—of the people and experiences that shaped us constantly intruding in our thoughts. Long-gone family members, schoolteachers, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and so forth, are perpetually with us. In his play, Walking with Ghosts, the superb Irish actor Gabriel Byrne (“In Treatment,” Long Day’s Journey into Night) spends two hours and ten minutes on the stage of the Music Box Theatre, walking with and talking about his own ghosts, the ones he mainly encountered growing up in Dublin, and those who influenced him in later life.
Walking with Ghosts,directed by Lonny Price, and based on Byrnes’s acclaimed 2021 memoir of the same title, played in London before crossing the pond. In this few-frills, two-act piece, separated by blackouts into a series of discrete, untitled scenes, the actor tells of his working-class upbringing, childhood financial constraints, Catholic education (including a spell at an English seminary preparing for the priesthood), inspiration to become an actor, reaction to success, and so on. Although it really doesn’t add much to the narrative, a scene at a music hall show including the actor’s mimicking of a female comic’s banal routine, each bad joke punctuated by a hip bump and drum beat, stands out mainly as a demonstration of Byrne’s comic timing, something he rarely displays in movies.
Dressed casually by Joan O’Cleary in a navy suit jacket, blue shirt, vest, and slacks, his craggy good looks intact at 72, Byrne introduces a host of colorful ghosts, including his parents, grandmother, and mentally ill sister, who died at 22; a sadistic priest-teacher and a sexually predatory one; and, among others, the great Welsh star Richard Burton, who shared Byrne’s now conquered predilection for the lush’s life (he reports that he’s been sober for 24 years), albeit on an exponentially far more thirsty level.
Byrne, speaking words often gilded with colorful imagery—which now and then missteps into preciosity—as per what we’ve come to expect from more verbally gifted Irish writers, moves about freely on Sinéad McKenna’s simple black set of three receding, gold-painted picture-frames, all nicely lit by the same designer; at one point, he sits on the edge of the stage. This may be an attempt to make more intimate his communion with us; a Broadway house lacks the ambience that would best accommodate the needed emotional connections this material demands. Which is not to dismiss how immeasurably valuable is Sinéad Diskin’s soundscape in contributing to the atmosphere.
Byrne’s mellifluous voice has developed a slight raspiness, which adds to the mild quality of world-weary wisdom he projects; even his occasional stumbles enrich the humanity of his presence. His stories, especially those about his youth in Act One, traverse pathways similar to those of countless earlier Irish raconteurs in books, films, and plays. Only the actor’s gift for storytelling, with its surprising deftness at delineating the voices, brogues, and mannerisms of the multiple characters he portrays—a talent he too rarely gets to demonstrate in his stage and film roles—lift these familiar tropes to a level of compelling theatre.
In Act Two, when he moves into adulthood, Byrnes’s experiences grow more engaging, especially when he relates his early adventures as an actor, moving from amateur performances to success in a long-running TV series and then to greater heights on stage and screen. Other than when he relates his encounter in Venice with Richard Burton, with whom he was acting in a film, he doesn’t loosely drop Hollywood names. Byrne does a decent simulation of Burton’s speaking voice but, given our knowledge of that star’s bibulous habits, the anecdote itself isn’t particularly remarkable, other than for a Burton bon mot about the “sweet poison” of success.
Aside from Byrne’s experience of sexual molestation, there’s nothing very eye-opening here, and he doesn’t delve into marital (his first wife was Ellen Barkin) or political waters. Given the more or less familiar nature of his material, Byrne’s ability to hold our attention for this overlong exercise is a tribute to both his personal charisma and his artistic sensitivity. I can think of far worse things than listening for over two hours to Gabriel Byrne rattling on about the ghosts he walks with, even if I now and then am forced to stifle a yawn.
Walking with Ghosts
Music Box Theatre
239 W. 45th Street, NYC
Through December 30, 2022
Photography: Emilio Madrid