New York’s beloved Irish Repertory Theatre has opened its new season in a newly redesigned space with Conor McPherson's Dublin-based ghost story, Shining City, featuring two time Tony winner Matthew Broderick in the starring role.
It's a triumphant return to form for the Rep in its completely redesigned state of the art new theater space that also includes a new gallery and a mobile second stage downstairs. After two years in the cultural wilderness of Union Square, the Rep is finally back firing on all cylinders in its original theater on West 22nd Street in Chelsea.
But securing Broderick – a bona fide movie star and a Broadway legend – for its new season opener is a signal of the sheer ambition and forward planning that's been guiding the Irish Repertory Theatre and its founders, Ciaran O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, for years.
With Shining City, McPherson's most understated but absorbing play, the Rep's producing director O'Reilly has created a production that quietly surpasses the original Broadway one in 2006.
McPherson's lovelorn but often hilarious ghost story simply works better in the more manageable scale of the Rep's space (150 seats with a new balcony space that seats 40). But the real secret of O'Reilly's superior production is the first rate cast.
Broderick is simply terrific as a mordantly funny middle-aged Dubliner, John, who's haunted by the recent death of his wife Mari. That haunting is happening in more than just his memories, however, as he tells his counselor Ian (Billy Carter) that he is seeing Mari’s apparition in the house they shared before her death.
No one sounds more surprised about this development that John himself, and Broderick is terrific as a quickly approaching the end of his tether widow.
How did the Rep persuade Broderick, a longtime admirer of the Rep’s shows, to tackle the role?
“I knew Ciaran a little bit over the years and he mentioned he was doing Shining City and asked me if I wanted to read it,” Broderick told the Irish Voice during an interview last Friday.
“And I did and I really liked it. I was on vacation with my wife [Sarah Jessica Parker] and I couldn't decide if I was going to do it or not because there was so much to learn, but I thought and thought about it and decided it was something that I would really like to do. That's what happened.”
At 54, the still boyish looking Broderick brings his own life experience (and, it must be said, a certain degree of Irish melancholy) to the role, which makes him a perfect fit for his onstage character John. Are the lessons of his early fifties informing his performance?
“A lilt bit. You start to assess things and you become aware of the mistakes you made and that you can't go back, which I guess happens in this play,” he says.
“The character I play, he has been horribly unlucky in that someone he loves has died, right in the middle of a couple’s fight, which I think is really a terrible thing to happen. You know, right when you're not speaking – that this should happen and you never get to make up is a really bad thing.”
After seeing Shining City, one of Broderick's friends told him that there really is a ghost in the house because of the unmade-up argument John had with his late wife. He really is being haunted by what happened.
Depression and worry force John to hold once weekly meetings with psychologist Ian, who it turns out has relationship problems of his own.
“They're all homeless, each character,” says Broderick. “Ian's fiancée Neasa (Lisa Dwan) is living in someone's spare room, Ian is moving from his own office space, my character John is moving from his old home, even Laurence (James Russell) the boy he picks up in the park is homeless. Nobody lives anywhere. We're all homeless.”
Preview audiences have been wowed by Broderick's skill with an Irish accent, which makes his character instantly believable. How did he pull that formidable challenge off?
“I have a very good dialect teacher at the Rep called Stephen Gabis and he tried to help me,” Broderick laughs.
“I spent a lot of time growing up in Ireland in Donegal. I tried to be from Dublin in the play but I don't think I've managed that. People do seem to think that I might be Irish; they're just not sure where I'm from. I got that from the feedback so far.
“It's hard for me to do. I guess I grew up around people in Ireland a lot and I know the way they mutter and the rhythms I'm kind of used to I suppose. That was very helpful.
“But I still want to make sure I'm making the right vowel sound and with the Irish that's often very strange, and that's all I can say! Gabis keeps trying to teach me all this Dublin stuff and I can't do it. The actor who plays the boy from the park has it, but I can't make those sounds.”
Speaking of Ireland and Donegal, is he visiting again this summer?
“I'm not going this summer, my sisters are going,” he reveals. “My parents bought a place there when I was about eight. And my sisters and I have inherited it and I've taken my kids. It's up near Killybegs and Kilcar.”
What does Donegal mean to him? “It's unbelievable. It gave me a whole new childhood in a way. I grew up in New York City, I was born and raised here, so the fact that my parents managed to put the money together to get us there was a great gift to us,” he says.
“You know the landscape, the hiking but it's also the people there that I grew up knowing. Real farmers who worked the hay in the summer and milked cows. I really, really got to know my neighbors and that just doesn't happen in the same way here in the U.S. We just really felt welcomed there. It's another culture, a wonderful place.”
Broderick's lifelong affection for the place is palpable when he speaks.
“People would say it's special because of the sea air. I remember how deeply I would sleep there. It was so quiet, the smell of the turf fires, and the hay. I used to love helping with the hay,” he recalls of his childhood days in Donegal.
To much of the world Broderick is Ferris Bueller, star of the ultimate classic eighties flick Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but in Donegal he's just Matthew from up the road. It clearly means the world to him.
“Most of the people in Donegal knew me long before I was an actor. But even since then they don't talk that much about it, which is very nice. My wife still gets it, some people's eyes pop out of their head when she walks around but not our neighbors,” he says of Parker, star of the iconic HBO series Sex and the City.
The locals are very protective of the famous pair if anyone is sniffing around, he reveals.
“A photographer was after us one time and a neighbor got on his four by four motorbike and chased him. I just remember watching as this photographer was running with this farmer trying to run him over. He wasn't even speaking, he was just running away,” Broderick recalls.
Onstage at the Rep, Broderick works with gifted Northern Irish actor Billy Carter and the pair has immediate chemistry.
“I love Billy, he's amazing,” says Broderick. “I have some really long monologues, and to have someone actively pay attention, I can't tell you helpful that is. I just find him a total pleasure to talk to and act with. I like when he gets to speak finally a little bit.”
Broderick adds that he's thrilled to be starring in the first production in the recently redesigned Irish Rep space, but as a long term admirer of the Rep's shows it's even more special, he says.
“The space is gorgeous. It's got this height now. When I'm on stage I can't see the house but I can feel the room,” Broderick offers.
“It's so intimate but it has some air in it now. So it just couldn't be nicer physically. And also, is it because of Ciaran and Charlotte, but the atmosphere there is so lovely. The people, unless they're all pretending, make it clear that it's a very nice place to work. They all seem happy. I hear no whining, or barely any, except from me!”
Shining City is playing a limited run through July 3, so you'd be wise to buy your tickets now before they sell out. As Broderick says himself, “I've seen a million shows there and they're always good. I always like them. I think they do an amazing job with that little space.”
For tickets visit www.irishrep.org or call 212-727-2737.