Whether teaming up for an episode of Steve Carell’s Angie Tribeca or playing an on-the-rocks married couple in the comedy Adult Beginners, the silver screen mainstays appear to have done it all—except one thing.
“This is our first play together,” Cannavale says. The couple will star in the limited run of writer-director Simon Stone’s contemporary take on Medea, blending Euripides’ 2500-year-old Greek tragedy with the real-life story of a Kansas physician who poisoned her husband and killed two of their children in a house fire in 1995.
“The material is very heavy, and very intimate,” Byrne tells Playbill. “It’s a risk, and that’s why it’s brilliant.”
The Australian-born actress, who has carved out a niche for herself in Hollywood as the scene-stealer in a roster of popular comedies including Bridesmaids and the Neighbors films, was last seen on the stage alongside James Earl Jones in the Broadway production of You Can’t Take It With You.
“It was one of those emails that stopped me in my tracks,” Byrne says of being offered the new role. “It was really out of the blue, but sometimes the best things are. [Theatre] is so enriching for the actor. You get to sit and talk about character, text and not to sound too lofty, but the human condition.” She adds, “It's the actor’s medium in many ways.”
Cannavale, on the other hand, has starred in a slew of Broadway productions including Tony-nominated turns in Mauritius and The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Most recently he was seen opposite Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact. “Medea is dark, but this adaptation is also very funny,” he says. “I think the best theatre reflects life back at people, so that when they're sitting there they can relate and empathize with the characters. I think people need to come in and not worry that it’s based on a 2500-year-old play and know that they’re going to see a show about people and relationships."
In this version, Anna, once a successful doctor, returns from a stint in a psychiatric hospital. Willing to forgive her husband’s affair with a younger woman, she wants a fresh start with him and their children. But he has different plans. Sidelined and in danger of losing everything, she is driven into a corner and sees only one way out.
Stone first staged his contemporary re-working of Medea in 2014, at Ivo van Hove’s (Network, West Side Story) Amsterdam-based repertory company. “I was in Australia doing a show when this email popped up on my phone,” Stone recalls. “I thought it must be an advertising thing because Ivo's name comes up, but it's an email directly to me. I think.” The acclaimed director asked Stone to direct a show in the Netherlands, to which he replied an enthusiastic yes.
This engagement, staged January 12–February 23, 2020, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is the first time his re-working of the classic text will be performed in English. “It's been great to hear my play for the first time," Stone laughs, "I speak German and I understand Dutch, so I always 'heard' it, but I didn't hear it the way I put it on the piece of paper.”
As for casting a real-life couple to star in the BAM production: “They don't have to work on their chemistry,” he laughs. “That comes for free.”
The two have spent the better part of their young sons’ lives (Rocco, age three, and Rafa, two) working on projects that have relocated the family everywhere from Toronto to Sydney. But Medea, staged in Downtown Brooklyn, offered the Gowanus-based family a unique draw card.
“We get to work and live in our neighborhood and take the kids to school,” Byrne says. “[Medea] is heavy material, but we get home and we have two tiny kids so there’s not much time for naval-gazing. We leave the work at work.” Cannavale says the experience of running lines with Byrne while walking to the theatre has reminds him of the significance of the artform.
“We both walk to the theatre together, we have a conversation about it … it really does land with me how old the tradition of theatre is and I feel really honored to be a part of that long tradition.”