PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Translations Nothing Lost in Hynes' Sight

By Harry Haun
January 29, 2007

"Shut up!" the bantamweight Garry Hynes blatted blissfully into the mike when she took to the stage of the Hard Rock Cafe Jan. 25 to greet the jubilant first-nighters who had just attended the opening of her new version of Brian Friel's Translations at the Biltmore.



"There are words in Irish as well," she postscripted as a mock warning, but "shut up" was enough to quell the ovation starting to form in front of her and turn it into hearty laughter.

Translations is a tragedy of miscommunication, of not finding the right word — and it's set in 1833 in Irish-speaking, British-occupied Ireland when a lot of that was going on. English army engineers were swarming over County Donegal, remapping and renaming it (basically, Anglicizing it, robbing it of heritage, foreshadowing "The Troubles" ahead).

"Everything I do in theatre as a director comes from Ireland," she told the gathering. And Ireland tends to come with her more often than not. Hynes is a leading importer of Irish dramaturgy, becoming in 1998 the first woman to win the Tony for Best Director (for The Beauty Queen of Leenane) — a distinction seconded, literally seconds later, by Julie Taymor (for The Lion King). For 14 days last July at Lincoln Center, she presented "DruidSynge," the complete works of J.M. Synge — six plays in eight and a half hours.

Her Translations sprang from stateside teamwork between Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove's Manhattan Theatre Club and Emily Mann and Jeffrey Woodward's McCarter Theatre Center. It went up first at the McCarter, then moved to MTC's Broadway home.

MTC's subscription audience assures that the play will run three longer than the 25 performances it logged up in 1995. Back then, it was star-cast to last — with Brian Dennehy as the besotted hedge-school headmaster, Rufus Sewell as his son who translates for the British, Donal Donnelly as a classics-spouting crony and Dana Delany as an America-craving colleen. All of them gave a decent account of themselves, but the performance that stole their thunder (and the whole show) came from Michael Cumpsty, who has gone on to become one of our best and most perpetually employed stage actors.

The part invites wonderful acting — and gets it again, from another next-to-unknown: Chandler Williams, who has done a handful of Off-Broadway roles (most notably, the Leopold part of the fictional Loeb-and-Leopold in the recent Rope). Here, he is on the receiving end of a senseless and violent act as an impressionable young English lieutenant who falls in love with the Irish landscape, the Irish language which constantly eludes him and that Irish lass who longs for America (played here, beautifully, by Susan Lynch).

"That love scene in the second act is the jewel in the crown, isn't it?" Williams beamed. He and Lynch express their ardor swapping Gaelic place names back and forth — an utterly unexpected language of love that is lilting, poignant to watch and wears well in memory.

That was the scene that won him the role and got him, at last, to Broadway. "I do feel I have crossed a certain threshold — especially tonight — and I have Garry Hynes to thank 100 percent for it," he said. "She was magnificent. When I auditioned, she didn't know me from Adam. I walked in. She said, 'Hi, Chandler. Nice to meet you. Would you just read this for me now?' Usually, it's a getting-up-running-around-sweating audition kind of thing. I just sat down and read the speech from Act II. She closed her eyes and crossed her arms and never looked at me once. She just listened to me. Then I finished the speech — it was, like, three pages — and she opened her eyes, and she said, 'All right, great work, thanks for that.' And I left, and I thought, 'I've lost it.' And I got cast!"

Alan Cox is also marking his Broadway bow — in the same role that marked Sewell's debut: the Irish translator who's the lieutenant's immediate superior. Sewell's second Broadway appearance will likely occur in the fall, recreating his 2006 Evening Standard Award-winning performance of a music-loving Czech in Tom Stoppard's most recent London hit, Rock and Roll. When it transfers, Cox's pop, Brian Cox, may come with it.

"My old man's Broadway debut was doing Strange Interlude in 1985 with Glenda Jackson at the Nederlander," said the 36-year-old offspring. "Then, by coincidence, another show that he had done in London — Rat In The Skull — was done at The Public, so he was over here doing two shows back-to-back and got picked by Michael Mann for "Manhunter." (It was in that film that he became the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter, the dubiously celebrated cannibal-killer that subsequently won Anthony Hopkins an Oscar.)

Cox pere has seen Translations twice — at the McCarter and at the Biltmore. "He's so excited by the show," said his son, who's a solid performer like the "old man."

Yet another Broadway newcomer is Geraldine Hughes, whose open-face, out-there, Renee Fleming-kind of beauty is largely camouflaged as one of the students taught in the dirt-floored home of the hedge-schoolteacher. "It's lovely to play in that world," admitted Hughes, "in the peat in the bare feet. It's beautifully designed by Francis O'Connor, and Davy Cunningham, who lights operas, makes it look like a Rembrandt or something."

It's such a jolt after her last acting job: Sylvester Stallone's love interest in Rocky Balboa. (Spoiler: Adrian has bought the farm.) "I play a single mother from Philadelphia, and now I'm playing an Irish peasant in 1833. It doesn't get more extreme than that, does it?"

She had the stage all to herself Off-Broadway when she did her much-cheered one-woman show on more contemporary English-Irish conflicts, Belfast Blues, but she loves charging away on all cylinders with a good ensemble. "There's an old Irish Saying — 'We have great craic.' C-r-a-i-c. It means fun. We have such craic on the stage — right on the stage. It's amazing. And Garry's brilliant. She is such a treat. I'm so glad I got to work with her. That was part of the attraction of doing this play for me."

David Costabile, who plays the headmaster's crippled son and assistant, is likewise full of praise for Hynes: "She's a wonderful director. She really lets you do your thing, and then she comes back and says, 'No, I don't like that, do that other thing you did before.' She'll shape it the way she wants it. Very collaborative, very easy to work with. And she liked my accent. That's why she let me on board — that, and The Look. She looked at me in rehearsal and said, 'God! You look like you're from Donegal. I can't believe it.'"

Heading the cast of ten, artistically as well as alphabetically, is Niall Buggy, doing a bravura job as the boozy headmaster. The Irish actor tends to win awards here in Friel roles; the week he put in at Lincoln Center doing Friel's adaptation of Uncle Vanya earned him the Irish Theatre Award, and the milquetoast he played in Aristocrats (no "The" and no joke) got him an Obie, a Time Out Award, a Drama Desk Award and the Clarence Derwent Award. "I think he's our greatest living playwright, really," the actor said.

Also, "I love New York, you see." He held out his hand and showed a special ring. "This ring here belonged to Siobhan McKenna, who was my greatest and dearest friend. She died in '86, and she loved New York also. When I was doing the play tonight, I thought of her. I have her picture in my dressing room. Anytime I'm in New York, I think of her."

The red-carpet action in front of the Biltmore zipped by at 78 rpm — one of the fastest on Record — and no small thanks to the temperature plummeting to the nippy 'n' nasty teens.

Both theatre bars (patrons and stars upstairs, press and peons downstairs) filled up fast and stayed filled till curtain. At intermission, it was an immovable feast on both floors.

First to arrive at the theatre were the DuBois sisters from south (very) of the Potomac. "We're here, just supporting Garry," explained Amy Ryan, who played Stella to Patricia Clarkson's Blanche in a Streetcar Hynes directed for the Tennessee Williams salute at the Kennedy Center in '04 (a rare but well-gauged departure from Hynes' Irish roots).

"I've been doing movies this past year," Ryan said, almost as an apology for her stage absence. She just completed "Dan in Real Life," written and directed by playwright Peter Hedges, who got Clarkson up for Oscar consideration a couple of years ago for "Pieces of April." Clarkson finished a flick called "Lars and the Real Girl" with the newly nominated Ryan Gosling. ("His nomination's the yummiest thing, and he's the most divine young man.") It followed right on the reels of "Marriage" with Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper and Rachel McAdams. "I'm on a wonderful break right now, doing personal fun things."

Tyne Daly tarried a while, lingering outside the theatre which she last distinguished with a Tony-nominated performance (for Rabbit Hole) — to finish a cigarette — and then she faced the bundled-up paparazzi. No, she has no immediate plans to return to the stage. "I'm retired," she goofed. "I'm always retired — the way that I quit smoking. Regularly."

Novelist Erica Jong arrived early too, exhibiting fear of freezing but much friendship. "Lynne Meadow is a great friend of mine," she offered. "I love her, and I want to see everything she's involved in. I follow MTC, and I'm always excited about what they do."

What Meadow is involved in currently is directing her 30th (!) MTC show, Charles Busch's Our Leading Lady with Kate Mulgrew as Laura Keene, the 19th-century actress who was performing Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.

Meadow's McCarter counterpart, Mann, is also taking up the megaphone — to direct her own work, Mrs. Packard, which will premiere at the McCarter May 4-10 and then play the Kennedy Center. The opus won the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award. Next year she'll direct at the McCarter Edward Albee's newest — Me, Myself & I.

Reed Birney, the leading man in Our Leading Lady (one Gavin DeChamblay), arrived from rehearsal nervously ready for the play and party. (It was his first Hard Rock visit.)

Also in rehearsal — times two, in fact — was Michael Cerveris. "Right now, there's sort of a battle between Kurt Weill and King Lear for my chin and what grows on it," he said. He's about to start playing Kent to Kevin Kline's Lear at The Public by night while rehearsing Weill to Donna Murphy's Lotte Lenya in LoveMusik for Broadway by day. What a juggling act! "I know: no sense, no fear," he shrugged, "but it's two thrilling, exciting things to work on — and I'm not going to say no to challenges like these."

Paradigm agent Clifford Stevens' big news of the day was that Sir Michael Gambon will be doing Lord Marchmain (the Olivier role) in "Brideshead Revisited," which, despite its perfection the first time around, will be remade by the British (sort of an Evelyn Wood reading of Evelyn Waugh, reduced to feature-length size for single-sitting consumption).

An inordinate amount of directors (all male) was on hand to worship at the Hynes altar: Jewtopia's John Tillinger, I Am My Own Wife's Moises Kaufman, Chicago's Walter Bobbie, Grey Gardens' Michael Greif, Grand Hotel's Tommy Tune, Regrets Only's Christopher Ashley and MTC's man for one season, Dan Sullivan. Also: Diane Davis and David Rasche (late-arriving from Regrets Only; he's off after the Sunday closing to Seattle to do a film, "The Spy and the Sparrow"); Beth Fowler; Paige Price; Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry; Julie Halston; Margaret Colin (Buggy's sister in Aristocrats and seated at a place of honor at his table); Heather Randall; Holland Taylor; Henry Stram (Broadway-bound in Inherit the Wind April 12) and Marian Seldes (likewise Broadway-bound in Deuce, opposite Angela Lansbury, May 6).

The biggest star and most glamorous presence at the theatre didn't make the photo-tip sheet (God forbid!) and didn't move once she sat down in the theatre, three seats in, spending the intermission reading her Playbill (including moi, fleetingly): Glenn Close.

The Riverdance duo producing The Pirate Queen and putting that epic musical of 16th century Irish folklore into previews March 6 for an April 5 opening at the Hilton — Moya Doherty and John McColgan — led a company contingent to Translations. Among them: the composer (Claude-Michel Schönberg), the title player (Stephanie J. Block) and the leading man (Hadley Fraser). They may have viewed it as more field trip than Friel trip.

"I understood the Gaelic — it was the English that gave me trouble," cracked Malachy McCourt, as inevitable a first-nighter to a Friel play as Tim O'Connor (Consul General of Ireland) and the co-artistic chieftains of the Irish Rep, Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O'Reilly — all present and accounted for. A jokester asked the last two on their way out what they — as Hungarians — thought of the play. Shot back O'Reilly: "Better than Cats."