Kerry O’Malley and Jim Norton in Dublin Carol(Photo: © Carol Rosegg)
Kerry O’Malley and Jim Norton in Dublin Carol
(Photo: © Carol Rosegg)
When Irish playwright-director Conor McPherson initially considered bringing Dublin Carol to New York's Atlantic Theater, he didn't know the company's performance space was an old church meeting house. But the ambience fit the understated, character driven play about a middle-aged undertaker coping with regret and loss as he faces his past.

"When I saw the space, I just knew immediately that it had great atmosphere, which you don't really get in a lot of theaters," says McPherson, who is directing the play's American premiere. "With the design of the play, I didn't really want to hide [the architecture]. So we've just tried to sit the play in the building."

I spoke with the bespectacled, sandy-haired Dublin native a week before the show's first preview, during a break from rehearsals with his cast: Irish actor Jim Norton, who appeared in the Broadway production of The Weir, McPherson's first play to hit New York; Kerry O'Malley, who played the Baker's Wife in last season's revival of Into the Woods; and Keith Nobbs, a Drama Desk nominee for Four.

Unlike many of McPherson's other plays, this one has more than one character -- and they even talk directly to each other! Since The Weir was produced on Broadway in 1999, a steady stream of the dramatist's one character monologues (St. Nicholas, The Good Thief, and Rum and Vodka) and one three-character series of monologues (The Lime Tree Bower) have popped up Off-Broadway and at regional theaters around the country. But in Dublin Carol, which premiered in London two years ago, McPherson has not only written characters that interact, he's also crafted only the second female role of his oeuvre.

That would be Mary (O'Malley), the estranged daughter of John (Norton), a Dublin undertaker whose alcoholism cost him his family decades ago. She surprises John with a Christmas Eve visit to persuade him to visit her mother, who is hospitalized and dying. In slow but spiraling revelations, their fractured past and the pain it's caused them comes to the surface. While Mary forces her father to face a past he'd rather forget, John finds a confidant in his young protégé, Mark (Nobbs).

Conor McPherson
Conor McPherson
Though McPherson is not an intrinsic talker, he can gradually turn loquacious when discussing his work and its recurring themes -- specifically, fractured souls on the run, either literally or metaphorically. John, in fact, could very well be the author's Rum and Vodka protagonist 30 years later. "I always seem to write about people who were very frightened and kept running, and about the consequences for those people person," says the 31-year-old playwright. "What everybody runs from is themselves. Often, the trick is that if you can turn around and face it, you will actually see that there is no bogeyman and that you've constructed all these awful fears."

Dublin Carol has the bare-bones plot and direct but lyrical language that have become McPherson trademarks and have garnered him both praise and criticism, as have his narrative monologue plays. But the onetime philosophy instructor -- who has a master's degree in that subject -- makes no apologies for his choice of dramatic structure. "I think that I began writing monologues because I was bored with straight plays and characters not saying what they thought," he says. "They'd come on and talk about all this stuff, but it wasn't what they really meant. And I realized that there's more conflict in one person than there is in a group -- that the war between self-doubt and confidence or fear and hope, and the way that people veer between all those different emotions, seemed to be a lot more interesting than having people in a room saying, 'He's the asshole,' 'She's the nice person.'"

Even in the five-character Weir and the three-character Dublin Carol, both intermissionless plays that have their share of monologues, McPherson says he tried to take a more direct route to character development. "I like plays that happen quite quickly," he explains, "where it's like an emotional rocket just takes off and the whole thing goes off into another place. It's very freeing and really liberating as a writer. I never want to write a play that's more than 90 minutes long."

Those rockets of which he speaks are usually alcohol-fueled, whether we're talking about the barflies in The Weir trading ghost stories over pints or the protagonist in Rum and Vodka fleeing from his wife and daughters to go on a weekend drinking binge. But McPherson hasn't explored this territory lately; he stopped drinking two years ago, when his last play, Port Authority, opened in London. McPherson collapsed from multiple organ failure, spending three weeks unconscious in the hospital and another six recovering.

Jim Norton and Keith Nobbsin Dublin Carol(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Jim Norton and Keith Nobbs
in Dublin Carol
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Besides compelling him to give up alcohol, that experience pushed him to confront his own fears. "I was forced to be by myself, and it was okay," he says. "Before, I was terrified of being by myself or being with my thoughts, so I would always kill it [by drinking]." He expects the next play he writes to reflect this change. "I suppose I'd never met a lot of honest people in my life," he says. "When they were telling the truth, it was because they were drunk. I don't want to do another play which has ravaged spirits in it. I'd like to do something which is gentler, something about the redemptive possibilities of love."

In the meantime, he has been directing other people's plays in London and in Dublin, where he still lives. And he's directed a feature film, The Actors, which he wrote with Neil Jordan (The Crying Game); starring Michael Caine and Michael Gambon, it's scheduled for release in Europe in the spring and in the U.S. in the fall. Yes, the movie is about people who are running away, but this time it's a comedy about a pair of down-on-their-luck actors who impersonate gangsters and end up conning an actual gangster out of some money. When problems ensue, they take on more disguises to dig themselves out of the mess.

Asked what might be his next project, McPherson -- who has also directed a film version of This Lime Tree Bower, called Saltwater -- replies that he doesn't have a plan. "I never decide things like that ahead of time," he says. "I just decide what the next idea is that I want to do -- it could be a play, it could be a film -- and that's where I go."