There used to be a time when people wrote memoirs to give us insight into their accomplishments. More recently, people write memoirs to give us insight into what they have endured. Gabriel Byrne delivered great performances on Broadway in the 2000 revival of “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and the 2016 revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Those two career milestones are not mentioned in the actor’s new solo autobiographical play, “Walking With Ghosts,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Music Box theater after a run in London. “Ghosts,” which Byrne wrote and performs, contains all the usual tropes of confessional memoirs that dominate publishing lists and occasionally show up on stage. Right now, Douglas McGrath’s “Everything Is Fine” plays Off Broadway.
“Ghosts” has everything: substance abuse, poverty, distant parents, adolescent sexual molestation, a mentally challenged sister and Roman Catholicism.
Let’s start with that last one. Someone brought up outside the faith might be mildly intrigued by what Byrne has to tell us about his childhood education at the hands of some mildly sadist nuns and priests. Having been educated in the Catholic Church, I think I should write a memoir about my own experience at the hands of nuns and priests. On this subject, I could top Byrne anecdote for anecdote — except for one. And it’s the money shocker of “Ghosts.” After reading a profile of Byrne before seeing his play, I knew to expect that there would be some revelation of sexual abuse. Anticipation of that crime helped get me through the first dozen years of this man’s uneventful childhood. But that’s the thing about memoir horrors: They exist to goose the narrative, and Act 1 of “Ghosts” ends with this sordid incident. Without it, I doubt “Ghosts” would have been staged.
Lonny Price directs Byrne’s memoir, and too often the staging is overly glitzy, especially with its many dramatic blackouts that signal we’re supposed to be awed by what just took place on stage. Byrne’s writing is writerly. He’s very conscious of wowing us with his poetic description of a nun’s waxy hands or a priest’s sour breath or the disappearing coastline of Ireland as he travels to a seminary in Great Britain.
Act 2 finally gets to Byrne’s career and how it all began when he joined an amateur acting company. The young Byrne is immediately befriended by a much older male actor who shows him the trade. The anecdote has all the hallmarks of the previous one about the lecherous priest, who considered Byrne a great student. Frankly, when the roué actor doesn’t pounce on Byrne, it disappoints, and the narrative drive also flags. Worse, the scene is followed by one where Byrne attends a variety show; it serves no purpose except to give him the chance to imitate a lot of third-rate performers. Again, Price gussies things up with way too much scenic and lighting design by Sinead McKenna.
Eventually, Byrne hits the big time and lands a role in a movie starring Richard Burton. It must be contagious because suddenly the infamous lover of Liz Taylor isn’t the only one with a drinking problem. Soon, we’re treated to a speech about the joy of taking your first few shots of booze that could be beat-for-beat lifted from “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” The difference is that Stritch was larger than life. She was born to star in her own memoir because she was always much bigger than any fictional role she ever played. Byrne is different. At his best as an actor, he tends to disappear into a role — whether it was James Tyrone or James Tyrone Jr. He’s an actor who needs a big role, and the Byrne of “Ghosts” is all too ephemeral, not to mention forgettable.