Critics Cameron Kelsall and David Fox both previously saw the original Broadway company of The Ferryman at separate performances early in its run. When an almost entirely new cast took over, they revisited the show together. Can you go home again? Here are our thoughts on that vexing topic.
CK: Despite what Jay Gatsby said, you really can’t relive the past—even the recent one. That thought occurred to me when we saw Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman together. I found the sprawling, complicated family drama utterly transfixing when I first saw it, and in many ways, I still do. But on this repeat visit – which came on the heels of it netting nine well-deserved Tony nominations – I couldn’t help feeling that its seams were showing. Do you feel the same way?
DF: I do.
CK: Part of that probably has to do with familiarity: I knew nothing about the play or its plot going in the first time, but now I’ve watched the show twice and read the script. And part of it too is likely due to changeovers in the cast. (The Broadway production opened with many of the originating actors from the U.K., almost all of whom have been replaced by American performers.) Both of those points raise interesting questions about how a work can shift and change over the course of a long run, and about how our feelings change when we return to it from a different perspective.
DF: My admiration for many aspects of the show continued and even increased — it’s a play of breathtaking scope and complexity. (See my original review here.) But this time, it seemed to drag on a bit. And although this new cast is admirable, it doesn’t have the sense of complete ownership I felt the first time around. Likely some of this is simply that I now know the story, but I think there are deeper issues too.
CK: Several of the actors in the opening-night company gave performances that stand among the most memorable I’ve encountered in recent years. I especially felt that way about Laura Donnelly and Paddy Considine, who both earned acting nominations for the Tonys, and Fionnula Flanagan, who has remained with the production. But really, nearly every member of that expansive troupe (22 named roles!) made a strong impression – from Dearbhla Molloy’s acidic Irish Nationalist aunt to Fra Fee’s cocky teenager to Matilda Lawler, whom you singled out in your initial review for her weird and wonderful spin on a classic Problem Child part. Almost to a person, I didn’t find that level of noteworthy individualism among the newly installed actors.
DF: Well, aren’t second casts always at a major disadvantage? If you think about it, it’s a very bizarre idea — and really something one only encounters in extended Broadway runs and long-term touring companies: that a new group of actors come into a show but have the responsibility to essentially recreate a performance that looks like someone else’s. And in many cases, that former actor created the role in a process where she brought much of herself to it. I’m sure this second cast had far less rehearsal time. But even more to the point, they weren’t part of the same kind of developmental creative process.
CK: Those are all good points. And it’s so rare today that a commercial Broadway production of a straight play sustains a long enough run that it warrants a cast change of this magnitude. In my recent theater-going years, the only other example that I can think of where I saw two completely different casts over the run of the same play was Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. In that case, the two groups couldn’t have been farther apart in approach, style, and tone.
DF: For me, it was Master Class — going from Zoe Caldwell to Patti LuPone. You could hardly have two more different actors, but more to the point in that case, the director (Leonard Foglia) seemed to encourage them to find their own ways into the Callas role. I greatly preferred Caldwell to LuPone, but each had something distinctive to offer.
CK: It seems here that, in most cases, actors in the new cast have been directed to replicate the performance of their predecessors — sometimes, down to specific line readings or gestures. I especially felt that with Brian D’Arcy James and Holley Fain, who replace Considine and Donnelly in the central roles.
DF: I found James and Fain affecting, but softer and lower profile than Considine and Donnelly. I wonder what they could have made of these roles had they been given time and a process that allowed them to find their own way in.
CK: They both certainly have compelling moments, but I found myself aware of their acting far more often than I did with Considine and Donnelly. For example — and stop reading here, if you’re concerned about spoilers — a moment that stood out to me both times I saw the show was when the character of Quinn Carney (Considine/James) informs his sister-in-law, Caitlin (Donnelly/Fain) that the body of her long-missing husband has been discovered. This is the stage direction Butterworth gives for that moment: “Slowly she nods. Then begins to shake.” Donnelly seemed to be truly living that realization; watching her convulse, you almost felt concerned for her safety. Fain, on the other hand, did what I think of as “stage swooning,” and that physical reaction felt very disconnected from what she had been doing just a moment before. It’s the difference between inhabiting a moment and acting one.
DF: I can also think of several such moments, which initially seemed absolutely spontaneous and real, but the second time around had the sense of artifice. I’m willing to also believe that some of this is inevitably linked to my having seen it before. And I also want to single out a couple of performances in the second cast that, to me, absolutely felt genuine: Fred Applegate as Uncle Patrick and Jack DiFalco as Shane. And on the other end of spectrum, you’ve already mentioned Fionnula Flanagan, who is the major hold-over from the first cast, and every bit as electrifying the second time around as she was the first.
CK: Yes, it’s remarkable how connected Flanagan’s performance still feels, even surrounded by new scene partners.
DF: Now that really is technique!
CK: Collin Kelly-Sordelet made a distinct positive impression on me among the replacements as JJ Carney, the family’s eldest son. I wasn’t as taken with Jack DiFalco — an actor who has genuinely impressed me in other productions — as you were.
DF: You know, it’s occurring to me that we’re actually talking about two separate but related issues. One is a new cast taking over, while the other is the idea of keeping a show fresh over a long period of time. Long-running shows are generally a problem, I think. Years ago, an actor friend told me that if you can, you really need to see a Broadway show in the first six weeks. After that, something of the specialness slips away — it becomes more routine. I sensed that about To Kill a Mockingbird when I saw it with you, five months into the run, and a certain smug sense of autopilot seemed to have taken over.
CK: It occurred to me after Mockingbird how rarely I see anything that far into the course of a run. Being a critic generally requires you to attend right around opening night. In the past, I’ve wondered how works and performances might deepen with time, but now I’m struck by the sense that your actor friend was probably right. I also have to say — and I can already hear people shouting “Elitist!” at me through their computer screens — that audiences later in the run tend to be less well behaved. When did you last see an usher come down the aisle at intermission to remind everyone that it’s inappropriate to talk during a performance, as one did on Tuesday night? I lost count of the number of cellphones and watch-alarms that went off during the course of the night.
DF: I’m recalling the crinkling potato-chip bags in Mockingbird. I thought they should have gotten at least equal billing to Gideon Glick.
CK: The perfect storm of cellophane crinklers, watch chimers, and audience members narrating the plot to their companions underline something else that I think happens as a run wears on: a shift from active engagement with the play to a passive reception of it. When I first saw The Ferryman a few days after opening, the audience’s connection to the material was electric – we were hanging on every word. The other night, many of our neighbors seemed more interested in their $21 sippy cups of Cabernet or wondering whether they’d make the 10:30 train to Ronkonkoma. Part of this could be related to the shift in dynamics among the new company, and it’s surely all linked to how I prefer to interact with a show. But I do wonder if, over the course of a long run, the balance changes in a particular way that favors less engagement with what’s happening onstage.
DF: I agree on all counts, but I also fear we’re leaving people with a sense that if they don’t see a Broadway play with the original cast in the first few weeks, it isn’t worth doing at all. So I want to also say that for those who have yet to see The Ferryman, they absolutely should. It’s a superb production of a wonderful play, on a scale that we hardly ever see anymore. The current cast, if not the equal of the first group, are still very fine — and of course, it won’t matter unless you’re actually making the comparison. Which, of course, we are. Because we’re theater critics, and that’s what we do. For better or worse.