By Joseph Hurley
AN EVENING WITH GABRIEL BYRNE. At the Irish Arts Center, West 51st. Street, NYC. Monday, June 26.
Kicking off what the organization hopes will become an ongoing series, the Irish Arts Center this past Monday night presented "An Evening With Gabriel Byrne," in which the Dublin-born actor, currently winding up a stint on Broadway as Jamie Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s "A Moon for the Misbegotten," faced a friendly and eager capacity audience in the intimate playhouse on West 51st Street, holding them spellbound for slightly over two and a half hours.
The fact that roughly three-quarters of his hearers were females, elaborately dressed and looking as though they’d come directly from the hairdresser, might offer some indication of the star’s basic appeal.
Following a slightly inflated introduction by fellow actor and writer Malachy McCourt, Byrne, wearing a conservative dark pinstripe suit and a dark, open-collared shirt, took stage, standing before a podium on which rested his book, "Pictures in My Head," and portions of the text of a second volume, which will apparently be published in the near future.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read Byrne’s book, a success in Ireland and subsequently published in the United States in 1998, that its author is just as gifted a writer as he is a performer.
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Byrne’s low-key, unhistrionic readings began with an insightful account of his first visit to a Dublin movie theater, in the company of his beloved grandmother, who selected the 1959 Disney hit "Darby O’Gill and the Little People" as her grandson’s first film. Among the actor’s memories of the movie are the gleeful performance of Jimmy O’Dea and the presence of a youthful Sean Connery in one of the romantic leads, singing a song while riding on the back of a hay rick.
Other, more sobering extracts included keenly wrought profiles of a tormented Christian Brother on one hand, and a doomed Irish building site laborer in London’s Kilburn district on the other. The repressed teacher and games master, whom Byrne encountered again at a football match late in his life, smelled of "stale sweat and chalk," while the construction worker frequented a Kilburn pub where he sang Irish songs, dreamed of going home, and, late one night, fell asleep over an untouched pint, never to awake again.
Other highlights included the actor’s self-mocking accounts of early jobs on stage and in film and TV. On one TV occasion, Byrne was cast as a young priest charged with ushering actress Susan FitzGerald into a parish inner sanctum with the words "This way, please," and only those words.
Not only did Byrne invest his character with a name, Father O’Donnell, and a county of origin, Sligo, he also gave him a limp, all of which he practiced until the director told him his elaborations were distracting and asked him to clear the slate.
After reading for 75 minutes without a break, Byrne fielded questions from his audience, answering generously and unaffectedly. During this period, one of his cherished concerns stood out in clear relief. The actor would like to see the dawn of a day when Irish performers could live and work in the skin of their own identities, without having to speak "British" English in order to be, as he put it, "understood in Idaho."
Byrne’s self-presentation was so appealing and so compelling that, if he chose to do so, he could easily, if handled by the right booking agent, become a popular fixture on the university lecture circuit.
His "evening" was so good, in fact, that the Irish Arts Center will face a distinct problem if the show is to become a series. It isn’t going to be easy to find future participants who can offer the wit, depth, variety and genuine writing skills that Gabriel Byrne displayed in such rich abundance.