By Eileen Murphy
Caught the Broadway opening of "The Weir" last week and, trust us, you’ll want run to the box office as though your pants were on fire to snap up tickets for this show. Of course, the producers are free to use this heartfelt endorsement on the show’s posters, but then, they’ve got lots of critical raves from which to choose. We do our best to be quotable . . .
The opening night party, held at Rosie O’Grady’s, was a happy affair. There was a feeling of excitement in the air, a nervous energy generated by the knowledge that this was a terrific play, a great production and a strong ensemble performance.
Armed with a ginger ale and a notebook, we staked out a seat near the door so we could watch the entrances. Three of the actors — Kieran Ahern, Jim Norton and Dermot Crowley — arrived to enthusiastic applause, an explosion of flash bulbs, and kisses all around. Brendan Coyle, who won the Olivier Award (the equivalent of the Tony Award) for his performance in London’s West End, came in a little while later and ran the same gauntlet with modest good humor.
Best entrance of the evening, though, was as by Michelle Fairley, who breezed in with — yah, yah — Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand. A man standing beside us got so excited he spilled half of his pint on us as he walked up to get a better look. Charming, we thought. Now we’ll smell like brewery.
Notebook in hand we wandered through the pub, stopping to chat with some of the celebrity guests. Bumped into Frank McCourt, who stood chatting with his brother Malachy and novelist Colm McCann — quite the literary circle. All had enjoyed the play, and Frank opined that it was wonderful to see a playwright who was not afraid to write about life and love.
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"C’mon, Frank — love doesn’t exist!" retorted McCann. In our hurry to write down the remarks, we almost missed his mischievous wink. Almost.
The public relations staff was friendly and efficient, and guided us to a press area where we could chat briefly with the actors. The drill was TV interview, well-wishers, then into our eager clutches.
First up: Kieran Ahern, who played the good-hearted but slightly slow-witted Jim. Ahern was thrilled to be making his Broadway debut, and was enjoying the process of settling into his apartment in New York. Adding to his excitement was the imminent arrival of his wife and children, including his 12-year-old son, Jake, and 9-day-old daughter, Emily.
"I can’t wait for them to get here," he said. "With the rehearsals and previews, I feel like it’s been so long . . ."
So, did he like ghost stories, we wondered.
"Oh, of course," he chuckled. "In Ireland, we’re brought up on them. When I auditioned for this play, I told a story that I heard as a child."
About . . .
"Oh, it was a simple story about my mother. One day, when she was a child, she was walking across a field with her uncle. And they passed a girl they knew who was going in the opposite direction." He paused for effect. "When they got home, they found out that the girl had died the night before.
"The funny thing was," he said, "I had no reason to disbelieve the story. They said it happened . . ."
Ahern was fascinated by the difference between American and British theater audiences.
"They’re very different in the way they react to the play," he said. "Irish and British audiences tend to be a bit reserved, but American audiences are not afraid to laugh, to go for the joke. Over here, one guy in the back can decide when something’s funny. And they know just how long to hold the laugh. It’s amazing, really."
So, on to the most important question: would he drink bottled Guinness? This was a running joke between the characters in the play, because the Guinness tap in the pub was broken.
"God, no," laughed the Cork born Ahern. "I don’t think so."
"Hey look!" gasped someone in back of us. "There’s Richard Chamberlain."
Whoa — Dr. Kildare himself, though really, all we could think was "Thorn Birds." We had forgotten that Chamberlain was appearing on Broadway in "The Sound of Music." We made our way over to the cast area, but we could find neither hide nor hair of our favorite "Shogun" warrior. Sigh. We were only mildly consoled by an acquaintance who kept saying, "He’s so dreamy!" Sigh.
The next to wander too close to our flickering flame was Jim Norton, who plays Jack, the owner of the local garage. Norton was courtly and charming, and made no secret of his love for the play.
"Reading the play was an overpowering experience," he said. "I must have cried for half an hour afterward. Then I called my agent and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this part all my life.’ "
And the experience of opening on Broadway?
"It’s terrifying. Heart-stopping. But it’s also wonderful." He laughed and leaned in a little closer. "It’s only taken me 42 years to do it."
Norton, like most Irish people, was weaned on ghost stories. "My grandmother in Monaghan used to tell us the most amazing stories," he recalled. "It was only when I was older that I realized that she was a remarkably well-educated woman who was passing our history."
So, we wondered, how did he prepare before a show?
"Well," he laughed, "all actors are Method actors in some way, aren’t they? But actually, this is such a strong ensemble piece — it’s like we’re pearls on a string. We need one another, need to play off one another.
"Our tradition, from day one, is to get together and run our lines for about an hour each evening," he continued. "Sometimes we even trade parts. Then we generally spend a little time alone for the half hour before the curtain goes up."
Norton grew up on South Circular Road in Dublin — "A rather tough area," he noted wryly — and in Blackrock, which, we assume, was slightly less gritty. He confided that he had been part of the huge wave of 1980s immigration from Ireland.
"I first came to the U.S. on a Donnelly Visa," he said.
Well, we offered, God bless Brian Donnelly.
"Oh yes," he agreed. "Certainly."
And would he drink bottled Guinness, as he does in the play?
He snorted. "Not in a million years."
Caught up with screenwriter/director Terry George, who came in with his wife, Rita. George, who wrote and directed "Some Mother’s Son," is working on projects for both Tom Cruise’s production company and MGM.
So, did he enjoy the show?
"[Absolutely terrific. A really beautiful piece of writing," said the recently Oscar-nominated screenwriter."
Dermot Crowley is as easygoing offstage as his character is boisterous onstage. The red-haired Crowley, who plays the enterprising Finbar, was struck by the Broadway audiences’ "fabulously different quality of listening."
"You could hear a pin drop in the theater tonight," he said, shaking his head. "That’s wonderful, because it’s such an intimate play.
"Our job onstage is to make sure that all the people in the theater are actually coming in to the pub with us, becoming a part of the play."
Crowley grew up in Cork City, where he listened to wonderful stories on the radio.
"I grew up in Ireland before television," he mused. "Because, you know, television didn’t come to Ireland until around 1960."
He chuckled as we wrote that down. "Now, I wasn’t around that long before 1960, you know . . ." he laughed. "Just a bit."
His first reaction to the play was one of incredulity.
"I couldn’t believe what I was reading," he said. "To be honest, I’m not that great at reading plays. But I ate it. I thought it was extraordinary. I knew I had to do this play."
But, we wondered, would he choose a bottled Guinness over a draft pint?
"Not if you paid me a million dollars."
Hovering over the TV crew paid off because we got a few minutes with Brendan Coyle, who shares a first name with his character, the young barman. Coyle said that he was amazed at the way the designer and director had managed to turn the large Broadway stage into an intimate pub setting.
"It’s important to bring the audience into the pub, to invite them in," he said.
Coyle’s love of a good ghost story comes from his grandfather, the late poet John Coyle. "He was quite canny," Coyle recalled. "He was a poet and an All Ireland fiddle champion, and quite a character. He also told the greatest ghost stories . . ."
Coyle sort of had a window into playwright Conor McPherson’s creative process.
"Conor and I are friends," he said. "So usually he tells me what he’s working on. When I read this play, I was struck by the beauty of the writing."
Coyle’s character is the only one who — intriguingly — doesn’t tell a story. So what made Coyle want to play the bar man, we wondered.
"When I auditioned for the play, the producers offered me the part of Finbar," said Coyle. "But I was drawn to Brendan, to what was unspoken."
Coyle’s instincts were dead-on, and his quiet intensity makes his character a most compelling barman. Those Olivier Awards people are pretty darn smart.
So, we wondered — since we had asked everyone else — Would he drink bottled Guinness?
Coyle gave us a little wink. "Sure," he said. But somehow, we suspect that he speaking as a barman with a broken tap.