Harry Potter, Man of Aran — the words have never come up before in the same sentence, let alone the same show — but April 20 at the Cort Theatre, those radically different worlds collided in a surprisingly harmonious and compatible bang.
In one corner we have the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, with its eight cinematic chapters grossing more than $7.7 billion worldwide. In the other corner, barely noticeable is a rough-hewn fictional documentary (an ethnofiction) put together with spit and bailing wire by the great Robert J. Flaherty in 1932-33 about eking out a meager, miserable existence on the Aran Islands off Ireland's west coast.
The thing that connects these galaxies is Daniel Radcliffe — a.k.a. the boy wizard of Hogwarts himself — who early on comes hopping and hobbling and careening center stage into a grocery store heavily stocked in cans of peas by his aunties. He would be The Cripple of Inishmaan, known to the whole calloused population, friend and foe alike, as "Cripple Billy." You'd hope for nicer treatment for a lad whose parents were drowned when he was a babe (a tale that, in the retelling, has deeper, darker layers).
Billy fancies that he sees a way to bolt to a kinder, gentler environment when Flaherty sets up shop on the neighboring island of Inishmore, and the filming can be seen from Inishmaan. Like his hellion girlfriend Helen and her brother Bartley, dreams of movie stardom saving them from their mean existence dance in his mind. But this is a comedy by Martin McDonagh, who is not about to let that happen. His specialty is letting plays get so dark you have to laugh at them. (Exhibits A's: the Tony-nominated The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and A Behanding in Spokane and the Oscar-nominated "In Bruges" — grimly giddy, all.)
"It's an amazingly cruel play," Radcliffe conceded. "Martin creates this intelligent, sweet — lovable, I hope — character, then does horrible things to him for two hours."
McDonagh pleads guilty as charged: "All my writing, I guess, is like that — humor and violence and humor — and, hopefully, the humor will pull it through at the end."
A funny, violent, Oscar-winning short subject, 2004's "Six Shooter," broke him into cinema where he has worked steadily ever since with "Seven Psychopaths" and "In Bruges" as a writer-director hyphenate. "Directing takes so long it's hard to keep writing," he admitted, "but the joy of being back here and doing a show on Broadway again makes me realize what a fun time I had doing the other plays here."
This is the third time Radcliffe has tiptoed from Everest to Everest to Everest on Broadway. The 24-year-old London actor arrived here six years ago, full-frontal, in Peter Shaffer's psychological thriller, Equus, playing a demented young man with an unfortunate penchant for blinding horses. Five years later he aggressively sang and danced his way up the corporate ladder in Frank Loesser's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. And now for something completely different, although it probably doesn't seem so from the narrative so far: His first Irish comedy. Not only does he not dance in this, it's all he can do to walk a straight line.
Clearly, he's not one for repeating himself. It's quite a different proposition negotiating his misshapen body around a set than keeping up with a platoon of career dancers every performance — a particularly proud achievement for him, he said. "I think there's something really thrilling about seeing non-dancers — and people you know are non-dancers — dance. When you watch that final bit in How to Succeed [the 'Brotherhood of Man' number], it was the crispness of all those boys in unison. Somebody once told me, 'There was something about the look on your face when you came over and did that final wedge down to the front of the house. You looked so excited and, simultaneously, amazed that you had actually gotten through it.' But I think, as an audience member, that's quite an exciting thing to feel."
But he's glad he had his hoofer's day in the sun and says he still uses it in his work. "I think dancing in that show has given me a confidence with my physicality as an actor generally across all the things that I do that I'd never had before, because I'd never had to do anything that has made me that in touch with my body and use it that way physically. It has definitely carried over into everything else I've done."
Handy example: He doesn't walk through his cripple here. Far from it, he moves with a contorted calculation that seems both painful and exhausting. Not, he insisted — or, at least, "not anymore. I think it's something my body has become used to." His right foot is always extended in midair — and not via a brace. Something more basic: "I also think the fear of screwing up in front of 1,000 people keeps it elevated." Cripple Billy's malady is not specifically identified in the text of the play, so Radcliffe did some independent research. "Martin isn't specific about it, but — in my head and where I researched what it could be — is a specific type of cerebral palsy called hemiplegia. That's kinda what I based it on, going on various clues that are in the script. It's something that he was born with. It affects one side of his body."
Between shows, the cast cripple does a lot of sprinting to stay in shape for a movie called "Gold" (as in Olympic Gold) he was supposed to be making now about the rivalry between star runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. "The postponement of the film came, totally coincidentally, on the same day James Bierman, producer for the Michael Grandage Company, called my agent and said, 'By the way, a Broadway opportunity has come up, and we thought we'd just investigate this again with you.'"
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Director Grandage, who transferred to Broadway from his Donmar Warehouse in London his Tony-winning Red in 2010 and his Tony-nominated Frost/Nixon in 2007, came across The Cripple of Inishmaan as a possible vehicle for Radcliffe when he was putting together a season of plays in the West End a few years ago. "I knew I wanted to do five plays over 15 months, and all in one theatre, and all separately," he recalled, "so Daniel and I sat down here in New York two and a half years ago, and we both committed to a desire to work with each other. Then it was just a question of finding the right play to do. I told him roughly what was in the season. I said, 'There's going to be some Shakespeare in the season, some modern British drama, a new American play — where would you like to fit in?' He suggested the Irish repertoire, which hadn't been touched in the season at all, so I said, 'Let me go away and look at a few Irish plays. Any in particular?' He said, 'No. I'm very happy to explore the whole lot,' and I came back with The Cripple of Inishmaan, simply because it had never been on Broadway before and it was a play that hadn't been ever revived in England. It was a case of making a claim on a play that hadn't been seen by a public in a long time.
"It's a great role because an actor has to go to huge depths of humanity to be able to explore. I think that's something that Daniel in his post-'Harry Potter' life has been extraordinary in carving out a career that is very, very different from the one we think we know of him. The diversity of the kinds of parts that he has taken on is remarkable, and so an Irish comedy fits very well alongside all of that and shows off his versatility as a leading actor. I was very happy to go there. He's unafraid as an actor, which you certainly have to be if you're taking on a playwright like McDonagh. He's unremitting, Martin — completely unsentimental. Just when he's introducing a bit of sentimentality, he pulls you in gently and then punches you in the face with it — and, in order to achieve that as an actor, you have to be pretty damn good.
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"This particular play appealed to me because it's almost the perfect combination of elements for an audience. You sometimes can get to a comedy, and it's a comedy. You sometimes can get to a dark play, and it's just a dark play. This is a play that seems to offer a massive thread of humanity through the center of it, and the range of that thread of humanity is a wonderful comedy, a violent play, a dark play. You can't say it comes good at the end, but it seems to come good for an audience."
Grandage will be returning to London next week to start directing a one-woman show with the English comedienne, Dawn French, and then he will prepare for his belated movie-directing debut: "Genius," adapted by his Tony-winning Red author, John Logan, from A. Scott Berg's biography of Max Perkins (Colin Firth) when he edited the works of Thomas Wolfe (Michael Fassbender). Nicole Kidman is to co-star. "We start preproduction as soon as August, but we don't start filming 'til the end of the year."
Another who has a picture on the way to movie houses is the play's Olivier Award nominee, Sarah Greene, in her first West End appearance. "I'm pretty shocked to be here, too," she beamed about her Broadway debut. Of the ensemble cast supporting Radcliffe, only Ingrid Craigie, as the auntie who talks to stones, was on the Main Stem before (for nine performances of Brian Friel's Wonderful Tennessee in 1993). "Noble" is the title of Greene's forthcoming film. "I play the middle years of Christina Noble, an Irish woman who set The Christina Noble Children's Foundation, an international non-government organization dedicated to serving the world's oppressed and marginalized children. She was homeless herself at the age of 12 and just managed to see the light at the end of the tunnel and realized she was here for a reason so she ended up setting up these foundations in Vietnam and Mongolia."
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Craighe and Gillian Hanna, who play the shopkeeper sisters who look after Billy, engage in some argumentative comedy, but neither see it as comedy per se. They just hear the laughs. "We don't think of it as comedy because, like all great comedy, you have to play the truth," Craighe pointed out. "It's a real situation." Hanna says the "truth" she is playing is "my grandmother. She called me 'the flower of the flock.'"
Despite the delicious interplay they have going, neither have worked together before — "but I have worked with Conor MacNeill, who plays Bartley, before," said Hanna, "in Ireland — in another of Martin's plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenane."
MacNeill is a major source of fun in the play — and frequently the whipping boy of his spirited, usually mean-spirited sister, Helen, a redheaded harridan in the making. (In real life, MacNeill has the red hair, and Greene is a gorgeous brunette.)
"I love working with Sarah immensely, it's a complete joy." Of course it's not a complete joy, as she is constantly breaking eggs on his head. "My hair now has a lovely, shiny coat to it. I'm hoping to do a good hair product commercial."
He's pleased to be turning into a Broadway actor at the age of 25. "It's wonderful to bring a play I'm really proud of here. To be a part of that, on Broadway, is special." Pat Shortt has fun in the role of Johnnypateenmike, a town crier/gossip, who cons eggs out of the elderly sisters by delivering "bits of news. I bring the local news, which is always more interesting because it's the dirt about the neighbors."
Gary Lilburn has the unenviable task of delivering doctor's orders to the unheeding, sometimes besotted villagers. "He's kinda the only educated person in that world, and yet he's very much of the island himself," the actor contended. "I play him as a local man who has married into the island and community. That's how I think of him. We don't get to know much about his background in the play — just his immediate concerns, which are drumming some sense into the islanders."
Has there been another since Jan. 4, 1976, when Home Sweet Homer opened and closed in the same performance? That's the one where Yul Brynner played Odysseus with a beard and a full head of hair and removed both in one fell swoop. That was hair designer Paul Huntley's wig trick, but, alas, he only got to do it one time.
The opening-afternoon party and press conference was held at the Edison Ballroom. Among the celebs seen were Erica Schmidt; Vogue editor Anna Wintour; even tonier: Two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran, talking up her cabaret debut May 28-31 at 54 Below, "It Might Be You — A Funny Lady's Search for Home" (co-authored by actor-hubby Darren Goldstein); director Michael Mayer, on his off-day from his Hedwig and the Angry Inch, opening April 22; Joel Grey, who's working on his memoirs and a new book of photographs; Corey Stoll, an excellent Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," with a new movie at the Tribeca Fest, "Glass Chin"; composer Maury Yeston, confirming his Titanic revival will spend the summer at Toronto's Royal Alexander Theatre and then come to Broadway in the fall; Jack Davenport and Michelle Gomez; Cody Williams and Alysha Umphress; Barbara Walters and Cindy Adams; People magazine kingpin Jess Cagle and Richard Kind, who will be starring in Travesties June 24-July 20 at the Bay Street Theatre.
Immediately after The Cripple of Inishmaan's opening and party came a real opening night — for the young woman from Spruce Pine, NC. Like Billy, Violet believes unreasonably in a miracle that will cure what ails her. Both of these shows originated Off-Broadway 17 and 18 years ago and rose to Broadway on the same day. What an Easter!