'I've been everybody's father'
GALWAY ARTS FESTIVAL: A WORD OF ADVICE. If you ever meet John Mahoney in a lift, don’t ask, “Hey, how’s Eddie the dog?” Don’t even make a funny face and tell him, “You know, I go to bed with you every night.”
Mahoney – you probably think of him as Frasier’s dad from the TV sitcom – is an actor and a gentleman. If you do say either of those things, or any of the half-dozen other hilarious quips that might occur to somebody who has just met Frasier’s dad in a lift, he will smile and nod and shake your hand and even laugh along with you. But just so you know, he has heard those particular lines a thousand times. Maybe a million times.
I see the Frasier effect at work in the lobby of the Meyrick Hotel in Galway, where a group of guests around a table, chatting and sharing a lunchtime glass of wine, suddenly fall silent as they realise who is standing beside them. You can see the penny drop as their faces change. One minute they’re ignoring the tidy American tourist in the plaid shirt, the next they’re going, “OMG, it’s Martin Crane from Frasier.” You can practically see them glance behind him, looking for the dog, the cane and the tatty reclining armchair.
Mahoney is at Galway Arts Festival with Bruce Graham’s play The Outgoing Tide. Written especially for him, it’s a three-hander in which he is joined by Rondi Reed – best-known here, as it happens, for her role as the mom in another TV sitcom, Mike and Molly – and Thomas J Cox, who’s not known here at all but, as the founder of Lookingglass theatre group, is a well-regarded actor in the US.
The Outgoing Tide is a difficult play to describe without getting into the plot-spoiler business. Mahoney is meticulous about not giving anything away – but, reading between the lines of the carefully worded reviews and press releases, his character, Gunner, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, plans to end his life while he’s still lucid so his wife and son can reap an insurance bonanza. Horrified, they try to talk him out of it.
Mahoney is playing another dad, albeit a very different patriarchal proposition from Martin Crane. How does he go about constructing a father figure? Is it a matter of language, of gesture, of something authoritarian in the body language?
“A little bit of all those things, to tell you the truth,” he says. “I don’t take much from my own father, because he was a very austere, quiet, private man who would come home from work, go to his parlour and play Beethoven on his piano. What I mostly do is take the script, analyse the hell out of it, see what’s in there, see what kind of person I’m dealing with, and then forget I’m playing a father and just play a person who exemplifies all those things.”