Most solo shows are one act affairs that run about 90 minutes or less. “Walking With Ghosts” is just Gabriel Byrne, sharing memories and spinning tales for well over two hours in two acts. It is not a moment too long.
Running through December 30, “Walking with Ghosts” is the live version of Byrne’s same-titled 2020 memoir, some of it verbatim, in which he recalls relationships and incidents with the usual suspects, beginning with childhood memories of his parents and an ill-fated sister; strict parochial-school teachers; and a priest whose first mention induces a cringe (you can just tell). There is also a boyhood friend who meets an untimely end, Byrne’s entrée into acting, and an alcohol-fueled encounter with Richard Burton.Long established as a fine – one might say consummate – actor on screens both large (80-plus feature films) and small (HBO’s “In Treatment”) as well as award-winning stage appearances (pre-eminent interpreter of Eugene O’Neill), Byrne proves himself an exceptional raconteur, someone you would like to chat with over a martini…or, since, as he informs us, he is 24-years sober, a diet Coke.
Byrne, now 72, shifts seamlessly among tones of humor, pathos and self-deprecation. (“People looking at me always makes me blush” is hard to believe, but, well, if you say so, Gabe.) Born and raised in outskirts of Dublin, he riffs on his Irish background with a characteristic lilt, bring to life a motley crew of supporting players, including his Da, who made wooden barrels in a Guiness factory, an occupation that fell victim to the advent of the stainless-steel keg.
Byrne’s pre-teen exposure to Catholicism, up to and excluding the Predatory Priest episode, is played for amusement. Communion wafers and an explicit replica of the Crucifixion take a hit. (Confronted years later, the priest has no memory of young Gabe. Apparently, Byrne was one among many.) Far less amusing is his deeply felt, lingering memory of the adolescent chum whose brashness led to his demise.
The treating of each segment as a separate theatrical unit, with its own exposition and blackout ending, either creates a choppy quality or keeps it from feeling overlong. I opt for the latter. While each episode does hold interest, there is hardly any reference to his acting career – no casting anecdotes or, barring Burton, experiences with co-performers, for example – a strange (and disappointing) omission considering the influence his popular stardom must have on attendance.
Director Lonny Price seems to have given Byrne free rein. “A willing horse carries a heavy load,” said about his father, could apply to Byrne himself, who bears the burden willingly. “Walking With Ghosts” is, after all, a one-man show.
Through December 30 at The Music Box, 235 West 45th Street NYC. For performance schedule and tickets: www.telecharge.com
A few days before “Walking With Ghosts” I had attended another solo show, “Everything’s Fine,” written and performed by renowned filmmaker (“Bullets Over Broadway” screenplay) and playwright (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” book) Douglas McGrath, at the DR2 theater off Union Square. McGrath’s piece was about how, at 14, his 47-year-old married sixth-grade teacher became obsessed with him. Although nothing seriously untoward happened between them, the story was nonetheless engrossing, mostly funny, but also sensitive in its treatment of the forlorn Mrs. Malinkov.“Everything’s Fine,” originally scheduled to run through December, closed following the November 2 performance after Mr. McGrath, who performed his show that night, suffered a heart attack the next morning and died at age 64. In the NY Times obituary, one of the “Everything’s Fine” producers recalled McGrath saying that being on stage telling his story was his “happy place.” We were privileged to spend some time there with him.