Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I met Gabriel Byrne yesterday

I met Gabriel Byrne yesterday.

It was not expected.

I've seen Long Day's Journey Into Night three times now. I’ve stood outside the theatre afterward each time hoping Gabriel might come out and greet us. Three times I was told he had left the theatre already. I wasn't disappointed. Well, a part of me was disappointed. Of course I wanted to meet him, but I understood. It's a grueling play; highly-emotional and long. Three hours and forty five minutes. If it was me, I would not feel up to anything but a nap afterward.

On Sunday, I came to the city with my sister and niece, Abby, as a special trip for Abby’s 14th birthday. She'd never been to the city so it was our birthday present to her.

The play was not on our list of things to do. We walked past the theatre on our sightseeing adventure and, of course, I stopped to show her the poster for the play.  I remembered then we had gone to see the film 10 Cloverfield Lane together last month. Abby drags me to all the scary movies because she thinks they're funny and she thinks it's even funnier how much they scare me. 

I told her John Gallagher, Jr. was the guy in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Her eyes lit up. "Emmett?"

I said yes.

"He's in this play?"

I said yes and pointed out John on the poster.

She studied his picture. I think she was a bit thrown by his mustache as he wore a full beard in the film. As she examined him, I told her I'd met him outside the theatre the last time I'd seen the play.

Her eyes lit up again. "Could I meet him, too?"

A girl after my own heart.

There were no tickets for the play but I said we could stand outside the theatre when the play let out. I said there were no guarantees but it was worth a shot. So, we did some more sightseeing and headed to the theatre about 5:45.

The play soon let out. The crowd that gathered was bigger than any other so far. I was excited for Abby. We strategized what we'd say to John if he did come out.


John's character, Emmett, is shot in the film. Abby decided she would tell him she was sorry he got shot. She said maybe we could tell him it was her birthday and maybe he'd write Happy Birthday on the playbill. (I had a playbill in my bag still from the last time I saw the play.) Jessica (Lange) came out then. She went straight to her car but I caught a glimpse of her. In jest, I apologized to Abby in advance for my fangirl behavior if Gabriel came out and I caught a glimpse of him too. 

We were still discussing what we'd say to John when I looked to my right and saw...Gabriel Byrne. He was maybe ten yards away, making his way down the long line of fans.

It took a moment for my brain to reconcile what my eyes saw. I remember thinking “Hmm. That guy looks like Gabriel.” before it clicked and I gasped.

“It's Gabriel," I whispered to Abby.

She yelped quietly for me, scrambling for her camera. "Don't worry, Aunt Krissy. I'll take the pictures!"

It's hard to know what an actor will be like in real life. They play so many different characters. As fans, we grow to love the characters they portray. Some actors approach acting as pretending to be somebody they aren't. Gabriel approaches it as bringing parts of himself to the characters he portrays. In a way, it feels like maybe we know him because of this. Even so, I didn't quite know what to expect of him in person, physically or personality-wise. He's played opposite so many people of varying statures and physiques.

Gabriel is agile. Fit. His legs are lean and his stride is long. There’s a spring in his step. I stand at five foot eight inches and he was maybe two inches taller. He wore pinstripe pants and that blue spring coat I've seen on him in photographs. The top of the jacket and the shirt beneath were open. His skin is pale and looks touchably soft.

He was pressed for time. It was clear he wasn't going to be with us long but he made sure to take a few moments with everybody. He moved down the line with an energy I didn't expect from a man who'd just performed an emotional, four hour set. He didn't just sign either. He engaged with each of us. He gave us each direct eye contact and, of course, this is no ordinary eye contact. Gabriel doesn't just look at you. He looks into you.

I left a gift for him backstage on opening day of previews. It was a silly book about the history of Buffalo, New York, my hometown. We have a great theatre history here. In the card, I told him if he wandered into Buffalo someday, he’d know a bit about its history now and that there is a writer named Kristen who lives there and that he’s been an inspiration to her. Hoping it wasn’t too presumptuous, I included a screenplay of mine, with an explanation of the character I had in mind for him, and why I had him in mind for it. I have no delusions that he's read it yet, of course. This play takes so much energy and focus. There is no time for distractions. I did hope to introduce myself, though, and tell him I was the writer of the script, so he'd have a face for the name if he did someday read it.

Over these last two months, I've imagined so many times what I'd say to him if I found myself face to face with him, aside from introducing myself as a writer. I wanted to thank him for being an inspiration to me as a writer. I wanted to tell him how his characters have comforted me through some difficult times in my life, specifically Father Andrew Kiernan and The Mechanic from Smilla's Sense of Snow.

All that went out the window when he was in front of me.

As a writer, I always hope to maintain some semblance of professionalism in these moments. Normally, I do okay. It took a long time to get to this point, but I don't intimidate easily around actors anymore. It happens still. I admire them. I admire these people who can bring words to life on screen. But for the most part I can hold my own. I’m still awkward. I don’t think that will ever go away. I’m a writer for a reason. I prefer to be tucked away alone with my characters and my laptop. I haven’t quite perfected the art of networking yet but I’ve learned to fake it well enough.

This was very different. I couldn’t even bring myself to be awkward. I was almost literally speechless.

He reached me. I held up my playbill. His hand grazed my thumb as he signed and those eyes drifted up to mine.

This was my moment and I had no words. I just smiled and squeaked out a "thank you" and hoped he understood I meant thank you for all of it, not just for the autograph. He smiled and said thank you to me and by the way he looked at me I knew he understood what I meant.

He continued down the line. I continued to take him in.

“How are you feeling?” asked someone down the line.

"Oh, a bit tired, to be honest,” said Gabriel. “Ready for a rest. We did it twice yesterday..."

His voice. That accent. It's pure poetry.

Gabriel uses his hands when he speaks. His movements are as poetic as his voice. He touched his hands to his forehead when he admitted he was tired. He reminded me in that moment of James Tyrone.

"Is that all?" he asked as he reached the end of the line, his Sharpie poised for any other items awaiting an autograph. There were a few more signature requests and he obliged them.

He made his way back down the line toward his waiting car, escorted by the stage door manager. I had one more chance to say something to him as he passed by but, again, there was nothing. I just took him in for as long as I could before he ducked into his car.

I have tickets to see the show two more times, the last two Sundays of the production. I will try again. If given the chance to be face to face with him again hopefully I’ll find the words. If it doesn't happen I'm grateful to have simply met him. That alone was more than I imagined it would be.

Oh, and John did come out, after Gabriel left, and Abby did get to meet him. I told him it was her birthday. She told him she was sorry he got shot in 10 Cloverfield Lane and he said "Yeah, that really sucked, didn't it?" He told her it was also his mom's birthday. Abby said to tell her happy birthday from her.

She's a little pro already.  I should take lessons.

Monday, May 2, 2016

REVIEW: Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill

Location: American Airline Theatre, New York (Roundabout Theatre Company)

Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Jessica Lange, John Gallagher, Jr., and Michael Shannon

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers. 

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a day in the life of acclaimed matinee idol James Tyrone (Gabriel Byrne) and his family, wife Mary and their grown sons James Jr. “Jamie” and Edmund, played by Jessica Lange, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr., respectively. The play starts cheerily enough, at the conclusion of their family breakfast at their run-down Connecticut cottage house by the sea, where everybody seems in good spirits. James steps with Mary from the dining room (Gabriel in the flesh. Squeaaa!) and wraps loving arms around her, praising her for her good health, specifically for the weight she has recently gained. Mary blushes like a school girl, insisting she has put on too much weight. James will hear none of that. He likes her fat and wants her to stay that way, something he expresses several times within the first few minutes of the opening act. Laughs abound between the brothers, still in the dining room. Mary wonders what they could be laughing about. James, a bit of a crank at times, his nose stuck in the morning paper, grumbles that the joke is most certainly at his expense. He launches into a small tirade against eldest son, Jamie, which Mrs. Tyrone quickly squashes. Mary then teases James about his snoring the previous night (it was difficult for her to tell the difference between it and the foghorn outside) and his appetite at breakfast.

“I’ve the digestion of a man of 25, if I am 65,” declares James dramatically, before settling into his chair for his after-breakfast cigar. (Gabriel lights an actual match here and holds it, flame burning, delivering several lines of dialogue before lighting the cigar and extinguishing the match. He held the match so long I worried the flame would burn his fingers. Don’t do that to me, Gabriel.) James continues to praise Mary for her fatness. Mary giggles and fusses over him. They are a couple much in love, even after 35 years of marriage.

It’s typical family stuff. Nothing much awry, it seems. Some tension, perhaps, but what family doesn’t have that? The first inkling that all is not well with the Tyrone family is when Edmund has his first coughing fit. One begins to suspect here just how fragile Mary is, as James (quickly) and Jamie (reluctantly) assure her it is certainly only a summer cold that ails Edmund, as she, stubbornly, almost desperately, declares, even though they all know it is likely consumption, the term for tuberculosis in 1912. Indeed, Jamie seems almost bored at the prospect of protecting his mother from the inevitable truth. The moment Mary is out of earshot, James turns and rails against his eldest son, admonishing him for being so careless with his words around Mary. This turns into a tirade against Jamie’s lack of ambition and his drunken, whoring ways.  From here the play is off, full steam.

Gabriel and Michael Shannon are powerful in their scenes and spar well with one another. Michael is a tall man, six foot three, perhaps, with a booming voice, and, though he plays Jamie with a bit of a weary slouch, his height is a contrast to Gabriel, who, at five foot ten, plays fading matinee idol James as a shrinking man, both physically and emotionally. Though strong, his voice cracks and breaks, especially when speaking passionately. Their performances are strong enough, their chemistry together is great enough, that it is easy to accept before long this is indeed father and son, despite their physical disparity.

Gabriel is phenomenal from the start. It would be hard for me to say otherwise. I’m aware of my bias, as I admire him so greatly, but he’s truly wonderful here. He uses his own Irish accent but what a difference between his approach here with his voice, and the voice he used as Dr. Paul Weston in “In Treatment”, for instance, which seemed to me to be his own. James is a matinee idol and comes off as such straight away. James is always on, always performing, something the three other Tyrone family members chide him about, to his face and behind his back. Every phrase he utters might as well be straight out of a Shakespearean play. 

Jessica Lange, quite simply, blew me away. For the majority of the play, she orbits around the men and the stage, often stepping backward, her head turned away from them, distracted, fiddling with strands of her increasingly unkempt hair, as she struggles against the scrutiny of her family and the power of addiction. Mary is a morphine addict and has been since shortly after Edmund was born, some 24 years earlier. Ms. Lange switches from an doting, loving mother and wife to bitter, hardened addict so quickly you are left with whiplash. The mood swings surprise you, so much so that the moments are initially comical, even in their sadness. I found myself chuckling with the rest of the audience, at her sudden accusations, until it sank in how devastating the accusation had been. Jessica swings seamlessly between these moods. She steps backward, refusing to make eye contact and, suddenly, in the next moment, steps forward, her eyes locked on her target, most often James, hurling her accusations, and the next, she’s orbiting again, pulling and twisting at the lace at the sleeves of her dress, battling to regain control.

The men are often still as statues, slack jawed, as she orbits; paralyzed, helpless to do anything but watch as their wife and mother unravels before their eyes, yet again. Their exchanged glances relay their shock, then desperation, then heartbreak, and ultimately resignation, at which point each man turns to the whiskey bottle. Mary’s arbitrary accusations escalate as the “poison” (as James calls it) takes her over, ever increasingly. When Jessica as Mary rails against him, Gabriel bows and turns his head away from her, holding up a shaking hand as a shield against her words, in a fruitless effort to protect from the pain of her accusations. As day rolls into night, and the whiskey and morphine really start flowing, there is nowhere for their respective pains to land but on each other. At one point, Mary leans over the banister of the staircase, on her way up for another morphine fix, long past the will to lie about her intentions, and spews at James, her voice biting and dripping with sarcasm, “Forgive me dear, I didn’t mean to be so bitter.”

These characters are all unreliable narrators, so to speak. They each have their own perspectives of what has transpired over the years, and why. Every indictment is indefensible with anything other than an excuse or rational. Does intention matter when your actions have caused somebody you love so much pain? Yes, maybe, but then again, maybe not? Who is to blame here? Is anybody to blame? Or, is what is simply just what is? That is the question I found myself asking.

James is a cheap “miser” who thinks more about his whiskey and “the value of a dollar” than much of anything else, but once you hear of the abject poverty he was raised in, how he and his mother and siblings were once homeless and starving, somewhere during Act III, you understand. Mary is a bitter, cutting dope fiend, but once you hear of the infant son, Eugene, she lost, and the clear postpartum depression she suffered from after giving birth to Edmund, a child she accuses James of encouraging her to have as a way of forgetting Eugene, you understand. James Jr is an unambitious drunk who likes his whores and rides his father’s coat tails as an actor on Broadway, but after learning of his childhood, witnessing his mother’s addiction, and the hand he had in Eugene’s death, albeit unintentional, you understand. Edmund (the Eugene O’Neill of this autobiographical play) is the sensitive one, the writer who idolizes “miserable” writers like Nietzsche and Ibsen, much to James’s Shakespeare-loving chagrin. Edmund is often the diplomat of the family, discouraging the infighting. He’s been protected much of his life from the effects of his mother’s addiction, protected by both James and James Jr., until it became impossible to hide. Now that he suffers from consumption, often a fatal diagnosis at the time, you understand it when he finally loses it, shouting at Mary, “It's hard to take at times, having a dope fiend for a mother!” This is especially true after morphine-induced Mary declares to Edmund that his birth is the reason she became addicted to the morphine in the first place, after James sent her to a “cheap motel” doctor who had nothing but morphine to offer her for her postpartum depression.

I watched an interview with the cast after opening night and they all looked exhausted, Jessica and Gabriel especially. After seeing this play it is clear why. Not only is it a wordy, marathon of a play, with a running time of three hours and 45 minutes, the subject matter is highly emotionally draining. It is emotionally draining to watch. I can’t imagine what they leave on the stage as performers. Everything, it seems. I don’t know how they muster the energy to perform this monster twice on Saturdays. Gabriel and Jessica walked off stage with their arms around each other after curtain call; holding each other up, perhaps. (Admittedly, they could have been  simply congratulating each other on their performances. I have a tendency to romanticize these things. It was touching, either way.)

Colby Minifie has a small but hilarious turn as the young, Irish summer housemaid, Kathleen. Kathleen likes her whiskey as much as her boss, Mr. Tyrone, a man she seems quite keen on. She teases Edmund at one point that he’ll never be as good looking at his father and then scolds Mary lightly when Mary complains about James’s drinking, saying there are much worse things for a man to be addicted to than whiskey.

I came to this play for Gabriel, who is as beautiful as ever, found myself mesmerized by Ms. Lange and fell in love and heartbreak with Edmund and Jamie, thanks to the performances by John Gallagher Jr. and Michael Shannon. Kudos, all.

Random thought: The men drink so much “whiskey” in the final act that I found myself wondering if and how badly they had to pee by the end.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Bruce Springsteen: The River Tour 2016: Buffalo 2-25-16

Thoughts on the Bruce Springsteen show last night, in no particular, except for this first one: Bruce Springsteen is a very good looking man. Like, very. I know. It’s a shock for you to hear that I find a legendary rock star attractive. It’s so unlike me.  He’s 66 years old, apparently, and his long-standing career would suggest this is true, but...I don’t see it. He ran and hopped and skipped and crowd surfed and shook his cute little jeans-clad bottom around for three and a half hours without taking a single break and never even broke a sweat. That voice, too. Did I mention he crowd surfed? He ran out on to the walkway that cut through the standing floor crowd, turned around, held his arms up and fell back into their waiting hands. They guided him slowly back to the stage. With their hands. On his body.

Mmm hmm.

Oh, the songs were great too. This is called The River tour and, as it turns out, I don’t know many songs from that album. That didn’t matter though. The River is a double album and playing it in its entirety was just the start of the night. The E Street Band is highly entertaining. They had a ball together up there. They seem to be great friends, or perhaps just great actors but I think it’s the former. Guitarist “Little Stevie” Van Zandt and Stevie Nicks definitely shop at the same flowy scarf store. Jake Clemons, the nephew of Clarence Clemons, more than filled his late uncle’s saxophone shoes. During Dancing in the Dark Bruce himself literally lifted a woman out of the front row and brought her up on stage to slow dance with him. Not a pert little buxom thing but a woman who has probably been his biggest fan since day one. I'm pretty sure it made her entire life.

The “encore” was six or seven songs, including my two favorites, Born to Run and Thunder Road. It wasn’t technically an encore because they never left the stage. They just brought up the house lights and finished the night with those on. The very last song was the Shout song.

(“Buffalo! Are you ready to take it home? Buffalo, I SAID, are you ready to. Take. It. Home?? Are you ready to carry me home???) (YES!!)

I don’t know if he did the Shout song just because he was in Buffalo or if it’s a tour regular but the crowd loved it. I got home well past my bed time and my ears are still ringing but hot damn it was worth it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to learning everything there is to know about Bruce Springsteen.