PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Shining City: The Ghost of Broadway Present

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Shining City: The Ghost of Broadway Present
I saw it, too—one of those ghosts or spooks or apparitions that Conor McPherson keeps playwriting about—although his Shining City put out, perhaps appropriately, a pretty low and murky glow when it premiered May 9 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theatre.
Conor McPherson; Oliver Platt; Br
Conor McPherson; Oliver Platt; Br Photo by Aubrey Reuben

This in a theatre still clinging with the recent sorrows of David Lindsay-Abaire ’s Rabbit Hole—the Biltmore is becoming Manhattan Mourning Club. No sooner had Tyne Daly and Cynthia Nixon finished grieving for their respective sons and moved on than in comes the fallout from another traffic fatality.

Oliver Platt stumbles numbly into the Dublin office of therapist Brian F. O’Byrne with a mother lode of guilt and grief for a wife he recently lost in a taxi wreck. The couple was ragingly estranged, and she has taken to haunting their home, freaking the widower out.

If you’ve seen McPherson’s The Weir, where customers at a Dublin bar stand around and scare each other with tall tales from the crypt, you think you know where he’s headed here—and you’re wrong. Between the poltergeist set-up and pay-off, the author springs a human agenda on you, involving you in the lives of these two men who, in different ways, are lost and at a loss. The patient’s recovery contrasts sharply with the unraveling of his therapist, an ex-priest who left the church for a woman and now is leaving her and their child because he made the mistake of thinking they would be the last stop for him.

“Another Irish play!” John Patrick Shanley said with a booming laugh as he entered the Biltmore, he being one of the chief contributors to the genre. But the crack referred as well to the recent rush of Irish authors on Broadway—the revival of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer at the Booth and the transfer of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore to the Lyceum from Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre.

The after-party at the Bryant Park Grill was Irish-appropriate also, it following the Friel invasion five days earlier. It was a nippier evening than before so the lovely terrace annex was wrapped in see-through plastic coating. (Without that wrapping, the scene cries out “Summer’s coming.") Festivities began a good hour later than first-nighters are used to. Curtain rose at 8 PM, as it does most nights, but uncommonly late for an opening. For this, MTC’s executive director Barry Grove had a perfectly bland, technical reason: “We had the subscriptions lined up and we were originally going to do this a week earlier. When we shifted the dates a week later to accommodate Rabbit Hole, we couldn’t restructure our calendar from 8 PM to 6:45 PM.”

There were some Irish repeaters on the premises. “Well, you see I’m Irish, I’m here, and all my friends have their plays on so I come along,” explained writer-director Neil Jordan, who’s in town making a movie with Jodie Foster for Warner Bros, but he declined to go into the plot. “I like surprises” [like, for handy example, "The Crying Game"], although he was surprised to learn that his title—"The Brave One"—had already been used in movies. Its claim to fame is that it won an Oscar for a man who never existed—Robert Rich, the nom de typewriter of a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.

James Stephens bopped by from BAM where he’s serving cucumber sandwiches and Wilde witticisms to Lynn Redgrave, Terence Rigby and Miriam Marolyes in the three-month tour of the Sir Peter Hall-directed The Importance of Being Earnest.

Marolyes will head up the reading of a new play by Tricia Walsh-Smith, called The Last Journey, at noon on May 12 at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre. The last Walsh-Smith reading, for her play titled Addictions, benefited the Caron Treatment Centers and starred a shining light from Shining City, Martha Plimpton, who plays O’Byrne’s unloved object.

“I think that most women are going to relate to my character,” Plimpton contended. “I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been sort of caught off-guard by a breakup—the idea of the expectations you have, planning for one thing and then getting hit with something else. That’s kind of a universal theme, I think, for a lot of women. In a strange way, this play doesn’t really end—and I know that’s kind of an odd thing for somebody to say—it might make people go and say, ‘Well, what’s the point?’ But that actually is the point—that Life keeps posing these questions, and how we answer those questions determines the quality of our lives. If we don’t answer them, if we don’t really look at ourselves, then there’s always going to be something right behind us that will get us.”

The actress’ parents, both veterans of the original Hair, were there— Shelley Plimpton, who was the waif singing so plaintively about “Frank Mills” and the Waverly Theatre, and Keith Carradine—albeit, sitting at separate tables with different significant others. Their daughter wasn’t going to have any of that and promptly stage-managed them to sit beside her at her table, maintaining “it’s my opening night and I want you there.” It was clear to the casual observer that the parents hadn’t played any brittle Noel Coward lately. Strained was the name of the game.

Mom, in fact, hasn’t played anything in a while—“I live in Seattle now and have a very civilized life. I’m away from all that.”—but she couldn’t hide her pride in her daughter’s success in the family trade. “I’m extremely proud, always have been. I love her on stage.”

Carradine exhibited the same feeling, nodding when told how his daughter connects with every word. “Yeah, she does that.” An early calling? “Apparently from birth.” He makes a special point to make her openings. “I missed the one for Sixteen Wounded because I was working, but I did come in later and see it, and I’ve been here for all the others.”

Will he be coming back to theatre in New York anytime soon? “One never does know, does one?” His most recent stage success was on the West Coast, playing George W. Bush in David Hare’s Stuff Happens. (The current production of it at The Public is directed by Dan Sullivan, the next ex of Shelley Plimpton.) “I had a really good time doing that play. It was not what you’d call ‘a fun play.’ It was demanding and exhausting, but ultimately satisfying as well. He’s one of the great playwrights, I think, of our time.”

There was even an Irish Rep table of sorts, with artistic director Charlotte Moore, her producing director Ciaran O’Reilly and their sometimes performer, author Frank McCourt. The latter was busily autographing five copies of his new book, "Teacher Man," which O’Byrne bought sans Irish discount. “And I’m his friend!” the actor bellowed in mock indignation.

In point of fact, says O’Byrne, “The first play I ever did was with Frank McCourt: Philadelphia, Here I Come! It started Off-Off Broadway and moved to Theatre Row Off-Broadway. That’s how I got my Equity card. Frank played the teacher, and I played one of the kids. We sat downstairs while others were rehearsing, and we talked every night, things about his life. I said, ‘Are you writing this down?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ 'Angela’s Ashes' was, of course, the result. 'Teacher Man' is his latest book. I got it for all my family. My brother’s a teacher, my father’s a teacher, my sister’s a teacher.”

O’Byrne pleads guilty to “black sheep.” If so, he has made it pay for him. In his performances on Broadway, there’s not one sexual corner of his life—he laughs and finishes the sentence—“that hasn’t been on display.” He was the country innocent smitten with a sinister spinster whom he dubs “the beauty queen of Leenane” in the McDonagh play by that name. He was Tony nominated for that Broadway debut, as he was last year as a priest suspected of child molestation in Shanley’s Doubt. His Tony-winning performance was a chilling portrayal of a serial killer-kidnapper of young girls in Frozen. McPherson’s play gives him some new troubled waters to thrash about in.

Kindness, which, from all accounts, is a given with O’Byrne, comes over nicely here in his comfortable role of the sympathetic-to-the-point-of-being-empathetic psychiatrist—the kind of therapist you never had—but he pooh-poohs that any heavy-lifting acting is going on. It’s just a good fit. “Actorspeak,” he calls it. “You just sit back and nod your head.”

If he doesn’t see a happy ending for his deeply conflicted character, he prefers to keep his secret as he did in Doubt. “For every show, you have to have something to discuss on the way back. You don’t really know whose story is being told in Shining City. This is a strangely constructed play. Oliver speaks the most, but I don’t ever leave the stage, and still it has these two parallel stories running along side each other for the duration."

Platt’s big scene—zigzagging crazily between tears and laughs—is a pretty big one, but he’d prefer not to say how big. “When I think about how long it is, I wet my pants. I can’t handle it. I just have to think about it being a story. I don’t think he knows half the things he can say. I think he’s surprised by a lot of the stuff he says and so, if he’s surprised by it, then hopefully you will be, too, watching it. It’s an amazing piece of writing, amazing . I started learning it in January, three months before we went into rehearsal.”

The performance is his first on Broadway, as it is for Peter Scanavino, who has a heartbreaking scene with O’Byrne. “To be honest, everything’s spinning,” he says of his debut. “I can’t even believe it. I couldn’t work with a better actor. It’s so incredible to be on stage with him. And we go to the Mets games all the time. He’s made me a Mets fan.”

Brian Dennehy, fresh from winning an Olivier for a performance that won him a Tony eight years ago (Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman), came to the opening in support of the man who had directed him to those prizes— Robert Falls. “I loved working on Shining City,” says the man from the Second City. “I love this play, I love Conor, and these four actors are like my dream actors. Aren’t they beautiful? Brian’s unbelievable every time he does a play. This is unusual for him¬—a different kind of performance—but there’s nobody better than him. It’s a perfect role for him. He hits it 100% every time he goes to bat.”

Next up for Falls is a Stacy Keach King Lear at the Goodman in Chicago where he is artistic director. He goes into rehearsal in August and opens in October. Then, he plans to return to do a play by Richard Nelson at Playwrights Horizons— Frank’s Home, about Frank Lloyd Wright. “It’s a metaphoric title. It’s about his life, his designs, his children.”

Author McPherson was all shining smiles about Shining City. “I’m very happy with the production,” he beamed. It never occurred to him before, but he has had very good luck in New York with Brians— Brian Cox in St. Nicholas, Brian d’Arcy James in The Good Thief and, now, Brian O’Byrne. The latter, he says, “is a brilliant actor. He’s very vivid. He’s such a strong theatre animal.” McPherson’s next stage adventure comes up in September at the National Theatre in London. “It’s a play called The Seafarer, and it’s about The Devil coming to play cards for someone’s soul on Christmas Eve. (No, he hasn't seen "The Seventh Seal," Ingmar Bergman’s little chess game between Death and a disillusioned knight.)

Hank Azaria, late of Spamalot and waiting word of the fate of “Huff,” was there cheering on Platt, his co-star in that TV series and pal from Tufts College days. Also: John Leguizamo of “ER” lately; Eric McCormack, counting down to his “Will and Grace” sign-off by rehearsing Neil LaBute’s Some Girl(s) for a Lortel launching; Edie Falco, having a night away from “The Sopranos”; Craig Bierko, drum-beating for his “Scary Movie 4” while trying to scare up a good play to do; Tyne Daly, revisiting the scene of her Rabbit Hole after attending brother Tim’s opening in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial two days ago; Eric Bogasian of “Love Monkey” with wife Jo Bonney, helming Some Girl(s) before taking on hubby’s subUrbia at Second Stage (could she be swayed by punctuation?); Regina Taylor whose Drowning Crow got a MTC-Biltmore launch; Judy Kuhn; lyricist Susan Birkenhead; Kevin Chamberlin, who has done his Amos Hart previews and will start in earnest in Chicago June 12 with Rita Wilson; the Tony-winning directors of Da (Melvin Bernstein) and Doubt (Doug Hughes); chef Mario Batali; The Light in the Piazza book writer Craig Lucas; Wicked tunesmith Stephen Schwartz; Rent director Michael Grief, hunting for a place to replant his critically cheered Grey Gardens and Jill Eikenberry, late of “L.A. Law” and wife of Michael Tucker, who arrived late with the rest of the cast of MTC’s current comedy at City Center,Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Based on a Totally True Story (Carson Elrod, Erik Heger, Kristine Nielsen and Pedro Pascal).

To put a little extra spice in this night, MTC secured the sponsorship of Tourism Ireland, which, in conjunction with Delta Airlines, presented to one lucky first-nighter a free trip for two to the Emerald Isle. Orla Carey, director of communications for Tourism Ireland, made the presentation herself. “Do you have to wear a green shirt and tie to win?” I asked — because I was. “No,” she replied sweetly. “You can pay me.”

The trip was won by Kristen Svenningsen, an intern at MTC serving as casting assistant. I’m dragging out my old "Citizen Kane" headline—FRAUD AT POLLS . . .

The cast gives its opening night curtain call.
The cast gives its opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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