The best theater actors will always ask you what night you saw their show. It’s because they often keep a moving tally in their head — some nights you get a really good crowd that gets the jokes, some nights you get a really smart crowd that enjoys the poetry, and some nights you just get a crowd that couldn’t score discounted seats for Mamma Mia.
When a play is working well it’s richer and more rewarding than a symphony. That’s the case with Outside Mullingar, Oscar, Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning author John Patrick Shanley’s new play – and his first set in Ireland. The show has pulled together a truly symphonic cast to present what is now the most poetic, touching and wildly funny play on Broadway.
Starring Will and Grace’s Debra Messing and Tony winner Brian F. O’Byrne as a pair of faithless and luckless rural farmers facing into their last chance to find love, the play is aided by the brilliant support of veteran Irish actors Peter Maloney and Dearbhla Molloy.
Speaking to the Irish Voice this week as the play heads toward its Thursday opening Molloy, 67, is simultaneously anxious and enjoying the ride as it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Shanley has a huge hit on his hands.
But this is theater, where nothing is ever certain, so Molloy isn’t going to make any grand predictions until the last review is in and all the tickets sold. First and foremost she’s enjoying being in the city.
“I’m having great craic. I love New York, I spend a fair bit of time here,” she says. “My life is ‘have suitcase; will travel’ so it’s completely brilliant. I’m constantly grateful for the opportunities and the craic.”
Part of the fun has been Molloy’s exploration of the spectacularly unsentimental Irish farmer’s wife she plays in Outside Mullingar.
“It’s fun to play and it’s a constant exploration. There will be a difference between what you saw last Friday and what the audience might see six weeks from now,” she says.
“Everything will have shifted slightly and subtlety. For me the pleasure will be in how far I can push my character. How tough I can make her within the bounds of reality. She is quite far away from me as a person. That’s the fun.”
Starring alongside Emmy winning celebrity actress Debra Messing has been a delight, Molloy says.
“Heaven knows how much work she did on her role before she started with us. She’s really got a hold of it, she’s great,” Molloy offers.
Messing is genuinely outstanding as a caustic, lovelorn Irish woman looking down the business end of an oncoming spinsterhood while she pines for Anthony (O’Byrne), the only man she has ever loved, and who barely acknowledges her existence.
Teetering between hysteria and absolute fury, Messing’s done something that only another feisty redhead could — she’s knocked Maureen O’Hara off her Quiet Man perch, finally.
“Well it is a Maureen O’Hara part, isn’t it? It’s Maureen O’Hara mixed with Pegeen Mike (from The Playboy of the Western World). Or any Martin McDonagh feisty female, one of those,” laughs Molloy.
Molloy got her own start in theater while still in her teens as an Irish language actor in Dublin before branching out to other roles. She was the kind of young girl who got into trouble at school by asking thoughtful questions that the teachers of the era didn’t want to answer. It got her expelled from school, twice.
“The effect that it had on me, it lowered my expectations of myself. I never went to university, partly because I was too young, but mainly I thought that I couldn’t do it, that it would be too hard. Those things I really regret.”
But decades later she’s one of the most celebrated Irish actors, and her stage work has won her international accolades which will undoubtedly be added to when Outside Mullingar opens this week.
“It’s far more enjoyable to play someone who’s unsentimental than someone who is sentimental,” confides Molloy. “But I’m not sure I would have the same attitudes myself. I am myself very aware of death and I keep thinking I have about 15 years left. This is what I say to myself.
“I don’t know whether that’s just a way of spurring myself on or whether that’s a reality. When I get to 14 and a half years I may move the goalposts I imagine. I don’t know.
“That notion of living with the awareness of death hovering over your shoulder I find in theory very attractive. If I had some terminal disease I am not sure I would find it so attractive though. To be living in that kind of way.”
Molloy reveals she has based her elderly farmer’s wife character on her own Irish relations.
“I’ve had a lot of aunts in my life and my character is firmly based on one of them who had that signature hair (onstage Molloy wears a gorgeous silvery wig). So it’s been a great help to have a physical and emotional model for her,” Molloy says.
When a production is working there’s a magic that takes over. It’s inexplicable but clear as day, and when I tell her Outside Mullingar has it she demurs.
“We can’t see what the audience sees and we didn’t know until the audience came along what we’d got. We had no idea,” she says.
“When I accepted this play it was partly because of the language. I wanted to see whether we could make that language work. None of us had any idea what the style was going to be like.
“You could absolutely realistic or you could be slightly heightened. You could underscore it or lean back and let the language speak for itself. During the course of the rehearsal it needs to find its own style.
“You really only know what that is when the audience is out there, because the audience becomes the other character in the piece. There’s nobody on that stage that’s playing for themselves. Everybody is playing for the play.”
Molloy previously starred in Shanley’s work in London (in the critically celebrated Doubt, later made into the film of the same name starring Meryl Streep) but she had not met him until rehearsals for Outside Mullingar began.
“I was interested to see how he worked. He came to rehearsal every day for well over three weeks. I assumed he’s done this on Doubt also, but Brian – who had starred in it – said he hardly ever came to rehearsals of Doubt.”
Curious, Molloy asked Shanley why he was attending the rehearsals every day, and he replied that his play wasn’t finished.
“In fact he did write consistently during rehearsal and added grace notes to it. I benefited hugely from that. He gave my character extra bits that gave her more bottom. He gave her reflections on the death of her husband,” Molloy reveals.
“I’m sure he did the same for the others too. All of his changes were significant.”
Molloy says Outside Mullingar is a love story between an older man and women - older as in their forties - and it’s a love story between a father and a son.
“I thought the piece [Shanley] wrote in The New York Times a few weeks ago about finally owning up to his genetic Irishness was very telling and very touching. In a way he became like a character in the play who kind of accepted himself, flaws and all, and is prepared to show it to the world. I was very touched by him acknowledging his heritage and embracing it.”
Outside Mullingar is now playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street.
Nine facts about St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City