Although her auburn tresses may suggest otherwise, Debra Messing is not Irish. "I'm a Polish-Russian Jew," she admitted. "I have been mistaken for Irish before because of my hair, but I've definitely never been mistaken for a farmer."
So what's a nice Jewish girl doing schlepping turf on a cattle farm in John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar, a new romantic comedy set in rural Ireland? "Thanking my lucky stars," said Messing, who worked with a dialect coach to perfect her County Westmeath brogue.
Best known to television audiences for her roles on "Will & Grace" and "Smash," Messing makes her Broadway debut in the world-premiere Manhattan Theatre Club production, which opens Jan. 23 for a limited engagement at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Inspired by the Bronx-born playwright's Irish roots, the play follows the rocky relationship of eccentric neighboring farmers Rosemary and Anthony over the course of four years. Messing stars as Rosemary opposite Tony winner Brían F. O'Byrne, who is indubitably Irish. "I definitely felt the pressure when I realized, 'Wait, he's from Ireland! He doesn't have to learn an accent?' It's intimidating, sure, but absolutely thrilling," she said. "I'm a longtime fan of Brían. He's so funny, so open, so brilliant."
Outside Mullingar reunites O'Byrne with Shanley and director Doug Hughes, the Tony-winning duo behind MTC'sDoubt. It's also Shanley's tenth play at MTC, where Messing landed her first New York theatre job in 1993 — understudying Mary-Louise Parker and Polly Draper in Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone — after receiving her degree from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Messing is excited "coming back full circle to John Patrick Shanley and MTC, the beginning of my journey as an actor."
Remembering her work 20 years later, Shanley personally requested Messing for Outside Mullingar. "He's always had a very special place in my heart," she said. "I went on quite a bit in Four Dogs and a Bone, and we'd go out for drinks afterward when he'd pop in to watch the show. I remember sitting with him at a bar and him telling me, 'You're gone.' I said, 'What do you mean?' 'Los Angeles is going to find you and we'll never see you again.'"