Manhattan’s Irish Rep: ‘nobody’s done what we’ve done’

The Irish Repertory Theatre, now 25 years old, balances nostalgia with more experimental works

Fri, Aug 2, 2013, 01:00

In the words of Brian Friel, this is a sacred place. It is not a church, and was once a warehouse, but the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York has a faithful following that has kept it going for 25 years. As most theatres struggle, the Rep drew a record 45,000 people in its 25th anniversary season – up from 4,000 in year one – and it continues to attract major talents.

Tom Hanks hosted its annual fundraising gala recently, following in the footsteps of Katharine Hepburn and Jeremy Irons. Irish theatrical greats Milo O’Shea and Vincent Dowling, both of whom died last spring, acted at the Rep in recent years, and Dowling directed there as recently as 2009.

The list of names who have played in this tiny theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea district goes on and on, from Anna Manahan and Mickey Rooney, up to, in its latest season, Julian Sands.

Phil Coulter opened his solo show last Christmas by joking: “I’ve played Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall . . . I finally made it to The Irish Rep.”

The theatre seats 140 people in its main space and 55 in its 340sq ft basement. For an off-Broadway theatre, it punches above its weight.

Some critics have hailed the Rep’s production of The Weir as the definitive version of Conor McPherson’s play. Indeed, the play is ending the theatre’s anniversary season with a bang, having been extended twice by demand.

The co-founders, accomplished actors and directors, largely attribute the Rep’s high profile to the quality of the work, and an endearing playfulness is also often evident.

Artistic director Charlotte Moore is an Irish-American from St Louis, and producing director Ciarán O’Reilly comes from theatrical stock in Virginia, Co Cavan. He’s related by marriage to Tony winner Brian F O’Byrne, and his cousin Peter O’Reilly founded the Súgán theatre in Boston.

Jewish and Irish audience
Much like Broadway, the Rep’s main audience is Jewish New Yorkers, who account for roughly 40 per cent of ticket sales. The rest are nearly all Irish Americans and those from Ireland.

The work staged is also a mix, encompassing within the past year everything from a reprise of The Quiet Man (Donnybrook) to the risque autobiographical play of a bisexual man from Tallaght (Johnny O’Callaghan’s contemporary Who’s Your Daddy?).

In this way, the Rep fulfils its stated mission and broadens its programming from Irish classics to work that appeals more to young theatregoers, with its second room used for more experimental work. “That’s the great thing of having two spaces,” said O’Reilly. “The studio can support plays the main stage could not.”

Being the only dedicated Irish theatre in New York, and one of very few in the States, is, he says, “a big distinction, one that often defines us, but maybe corners us as well”.

The Rep was created to showcase “Irish and Irish American” works, tagging on “and [that of] other cultures” to its mission statement 10 years ago, O’Reilly says. Still, some of its supporters might question any play that is not Irish.

The irony, O’Reilly notes, is that Irish theatres are more than happy to stage foreign work – in Dublin, the Gate Theatre is currently staging Tennessee Willliams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams was from Moore’s hometown of St Louis, and once wrote a part for her (Helena in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur).

Nostalgic old Ireland?
Does the Rep put on work that’s more nostalgic than it would were it in Ireland? “There are those who come for that very reason,” says O’Reilly. “Instead of going down the road to the pub they’ll come on a Sunday afternoon and visit Ireland with The Weir.”

Whatever the choice of plays, each is staged exactly as he would do it in Ireland, he says. “There’s no Americanisation of any of the plays.”

In fact, some plays that Des Keogh adapted from John B Keane’s work, including The Love-Hungry Farmer, premiered at the Rep before going on to be hits in Ireland. Similarly, The Irish . . . And How They Got that Way was written in 2000 by Frank McCourt as a sketch to run one fundraising night. It wound up as a full play and television production.

McCourt’s widow, Ellen, is chair of the Rep’s board. Speaking on the night of its 25th gala, she jokes that “Ciaran and Charlotte are like an old, married couple”.

Moore and O’Reilly might be just business partners, but, says Moore, “We share a shorthand”, and they frequently finish each other’s sentences. When asked what’s left undone, O’Reilly begins, in his soft Cavan accent: “Well, there’s sustainability, we need to make sure before we . . . ”

“Die,” interjects Moore. “[We need to ensure] that it keeps going at a high level. Nobody’s done what we’ve done so we don’t want it to disappear. That would be terrible.”

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