Debra Messing Is a Russian Polish Jew Playing an Irish Farmer in Outside Mullingar
Messing joins Brían F. O'Byrne, John Patrick Shanley, and Doug Hughes — her quite Irish ''Mullingar'' family — to discuss creating the Beatrice and Benedick of the bogs.
John Patrick Shanley has been sitting on the idea of Outside Mullingar for a long time — since he first visited his family in the Irish countryside a quarter of a century ago. Shanley immediately became enamored with the family's use of language. "My family in Ireland can actually talk better than I can write," said the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning author of Doubt.
So when Shanley decided it was finally time to put those personalities onstage, he brought together an all-star team including Doubt director Doug Hughes, Doubt star Brían F. O'Byrne, and Emmy winner Debra Messing (Smash, Will & Grace). Messing and the team spoke to TheaterMania about creating the play with a mostly Irish cast (apart from Messing), collaborating with friends, and basing a play on your family.
How are you feeling about your Broadway debut?
It is more exciting than I even dreamed it would be, and I had pretty high expectations. Doug and John and Brían have worked together before and they have a built-in language and way of communicating and camaraderie, and I would be lying if I didn't say that on the first day I was intimidated by that. But the thing that was really extraordinary was that I was immediately welcomed into the fold. To hear the stories straight from John Patrick Shanley and to watch his process is stunning. Just to be around a table with people [whom] I truly respect and know I'm gonna learn from is a dream come true.
What drew you to this play?
It startled me with its originality. I felt like I'd never seen these characters before in my life, and it just made me feel like I have to live in this world. [It's] lyrical and poetic and beautiful and I found myself laughing out loud.
And there's [also] something sort of magical about [this opportunity]. I graduated from NYU graduate school twenty years ago, and my first off-Broadway show was John Patrick Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone.
What's it been like working with so many Irish natives and Irish descendants?
At first it was incredibly scary. I am a Russian Polish Jew and as far from an Irish farmer girl as you can get. But I took strength from the fact that they believed in me. Now I see it as a huge boon to have so many resources about Ireland and the Irish culture around the table.
Brían F. O'Byrne
What are the best parts of working in this collaboration?
As far as collaborating with anybody, literally anybody, Doug Hughes is my favorite person by a long way. [This] relationship, for me, precious and unique. It has nothing to do with the final product, of course — it could end up being rubbish — but as a process, it's the best. On top of that, Shanley creates and addresses anything that he sees wrong on the spot, so he'll make changes right there. You get a chance to watch his [creation] process in front of you, and on the odd occasion, contribute a little bit to that.
It sounds like you enjoy getting to be part of that process.
Oh, absolutely. It's set in a background that I come from. It's all utterly familiar to me. And there is a particular lightness to this play that is shocking, a generosity of spirit, [and] an affirmation of love in this play that is startling. It's completely unpredictable and revelatory and it's just fun. If we do our job…this is going to make people turn to each other and, I don't know, fall in love. It's utterly good.
Why were you personally attracted to this play?
It is just such a staggeringly wise, simple, affirmative work. I've said to a number of people that if Lennon and McCartney wrote plays, this is a play they would have written. It's so very much on the side of love, and yet it is an entirely unsentimental play. It's very accurate about how we trip each other up, how we trip ourselves up, how we defeat ourselves. [And] there's great, great comedy in that.
How is it to be working with this team again?
It's great. I think it's a very good sign when you make a plan to see somebody you work with on your day off, and yesterday on our day off, Brían and I got together. It's all a group of people who can finish each other's sentences. And it's a rare privilege to be working with Debra, who I think is just a superb actress and a great lady. And she works so beautifully with Brían. They're the great Beatrice and Benedick of the bogs, the two of them.
John Patrick Shanley
How did you come to write this play?
My father was born on a farm in central Ireland and worked on that farm as a shepherd until he was twenty-four years old and came to this country. And later in life, I began to take him back to visit the family. For the last twenty to twenty-five years I've been visiting my family in Ireland on the farm that my father was born on. These people, my family in Ireland, are full of so much great language, such unexpected and shocking humor, such sweetness and, in a way, nakedness, that I knew that I was going to write about them eventually. The first time I listened to them, I thought, a folklorist should immediately move into the house and start recording everything these people say.
How did you hit upon this particular story?
There's a common plight in Ireland, especially in central Ireland, of these farmers who live alone. Their parents die, and this sort of window that they had where they might marry closes, and it closes on the young side because the farms can become very all-consuming. And a lot of these men end up bachelors. Sometimes, there's some kind of breakthrough, something happens where they find company, a kindred spirit, or even a great romantic fire, in the second half of their lives. But it's kind of a miracle when it happens. And I wanted to write about that, the possibility of that miracle happening.
Does your family know that they've inspired a play?
They do know, and the way they feel about it is still in formation. Some of my family from Ireland is coming to see the play. My cousin, who's a farmer and is probably the closest thing to an inspiration that the play has, he probably can't leave the animals. He probably won't leave the animals. My family is trying to get him to come. We'll see.