On the Road: Legendary Actor Gabriel Byrne Walks With His Ghosts in Autobiographical Broadway Show

“I’m an immigrant and an exile,” Gabriel Byrne begins his autobiographical solo show at the century-old Music Box Theatre on Broadway. For two hours-plus, the legendary Irish actor tells stories of his childhood, growing up in a poor Dublin family, and gives us a taste of how he became an actor, rather than a priest. Walking With Ghosts is the theatrical version of Byrne’s recent memoir of the same title. Byrne is a beguiling performer but for most of the show, I felt that he was holding back from sharing any truly personal insights, even about how he feels about being an immigrant and an exile. Lonny Price, a veteran director of Broadway, West End, TV and film productions, directs.

The first time I saw Gabriel Byrne on stage was at the Goodman Theatre in 2000 when he played James Tyrone Jr. to Cherry Jones’ Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill. It was, as Byrne said in an interview, a play about hope, faith, destruction and addiction. Years later, I saw Byrne on stage again when he played another version of James Tyrone in O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, at the Roundabout Theatre on Broadway in 2016. Another play about hope, faith, destruction and addiction. They're all themes–and ghosts—that Byrne, now 72 years old and a New Yorker, brings to this performance.

Photo by Emilio Madrid.

I suspect more of Byrne’s fans on Saturday night became his fans through his appearances as a psychotherapist in the HBO series, “In Treatment,” which ran for four seasons. The audience (an almost full house) was fully appreciative of Byrne’s sly humor and family stories told in his soft Irish accent. His performance, broken by brief blackouts between stories, left me wanting to know more about his acting career. He gives us a tease about how he left the seminary after being abused by a priest and became an actor. He recounts a drinking session with Richard Burton, but tells us nothing about his long and successful acting career, including starring in more than 80 feature films and many successful theatrical productions. Why did he skip over the reason his admirers buy tickets to see him?  He also seemed to be protecting himself from letting us gain any personal insights—except for a scene in the second act where, sitting on the edge of the stage, he talks about his bout with alcoholism—and his pride in being sober for 24 years.

The two-act performance runs more than two hours with an intermission; perhaps more energy would be added by trimming it to an 80- or 90-minute one-act. In addition, the lackluster scenic and lighting design by Sinead McKenna and sound design by Sinead Diskin do little to enhance Walking With Ghosts. It was a show that I wanted to love but can only add my own tepid review to the others.

Despite my disappointment in Walking With Ghosts, I hope it’s being properly recorded (not just an archival recording) because it would make a fine film for streaming on one of the major platforms. And Gabriel Byrne’s fans across the country would get to learn about the life of this important actor.

Walking With Ghosts continues at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. in New York through November 20. It was originally scheduled to run until December 30. You can learn more and buy tickets here.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.