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By ERIC GRODE
When Brían F. O'Byrne starred in Doubt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning John Patrick Shanley play about a priest in a 1960s Catholic school who may or may not be molesting a student, he made a conscious effort to counterbalance the energy from the other side of the footlights. If the audience seemed to trust his character during his opening monologue, O'Byrne would approach the role as a sexual predator that night; if they seemed to look at him askance, he would play Father Flynn as an innocent.
O'Byrne's reunion with Shanley, the whimsical Irish romance Outside Mullingar, requires no such triangulation. This time, O'Byrne says, the trick is peeling away those layers of calculation to reach a simpler state.
"The first thing that appealed to me about this piece was the absolute lack of irony," he says of the play, which opens tomorrow at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a production from Manhattan Theatre Club. "There's a real naïvete to my character that's a lot of fun to play."
Mullingar pits Anthony Reilly (O'Byrne), an excruciatingly shy misfit with a good heart, against his strong-willed next-door neighbor, Rosemary Muldoon (Debra Messing). As the fate of their adjoining farms in the titular region of rural Ireland becomes an issue, both characters are forced to acknowledge feelings---both good and bad---that have been simmering for decades.
"Her persistence and his pain really shine through," O'Byrne says of Anthony and Rosemary, "but at the same time, there's a buoyancy to the piece."
This mixture of effervescence and heart-on-the-sleeve emotion has prompted an unexpected response from preview audiences, O'Byrne says: "A lot of people have been crying, which was very surprising to me. You go out there sometimes thinking you're telling one story, and then the audience tells you, 'No, this is the story you're trying to tell.'"
O'Byrne, who was born in County Cavan of Ireland, has told stories by nearly all of the major Irish playwrights working today, from Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) to Conor McPherson (Shining City) to Enda Walsh (Bedbound). And after Outside Mullingar finishes its run, he will return to Dublin to film the next season of the hugely successful Irish crime drama Love/Hate. ("Twenty-five percent of the population sits down every Sunday night to watch it," he says.)
So he is in a particularly good position to judge the recent conversion of the prolific Shanley, an Irish-American who has only now begun writing about Irish characters. And? How did he do?
First of all, O'Byrne says of Mullingar, "it's not an Irish play. It's an Irish-American play, and that's not a negative thing."
He continues, "I don't think a playwright from Ireland would have written it this way. It's a Shanley world, a mix of an Old World qualities that filters down through immigrants. And this gives it a sense of being almost a fable." One that leaves little room for doubt and plenty of space for tears.
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program
Photo by Joan Marcus