The ever-dependable Brian Murray, one of the hardest and always-working actor/directors in the business, is back onstage after a two-year absence. He's playing Scotland Yard Inspector Rough in the Irish Repertory Theater's revival of Angel Street, now known as "Gaslight.
The play is a dark drama about a husband with a mysterious past, who, believing his new wife is being unfaithful, submits her to psychological abuse and manipulative dominance that brings her to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Murray, a Tony nominee and Drama Desk winner, is a recent inductee into the Theater Hall of Fame. His last appearance on Broadway was opposite Dana Ivey and Richard Easton in LCT's 2005 The Rivals and, the same year with Judith Light Off Broadway in Colder Than Here.
Co-starring in Gaslight/> are veteran actress Patricia O'Connell, who made her Broadway debut in 1933's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Laura Odeh as wife Bella Cunningham and Laoisa Sexton is sassy maid Nancy.
Gaslight, which is set in Victorian London, is directed by Irish Rep co-founder and artistic director Charlotte Moore.
The 1941 Broadway play by Patrick Hamilton starred Vincent Price and Judith Evelyn as the husband and wife and Leo G. Carroll (later of Topper fame) as the detective. With names changed and characters added, it became a huge screen hit three years later, adapted by John Van Druten and directed by George Cukor. Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman played husband and wife with Joseph Cotten as the crafty inspector.
There were two standout supporting roles: Dame May Whitty and Angela Lansbury, making her screen debut as maid Nancy, a role which won her an Academy Award nomination at age 19 and put her on the quick ascent to stardom.
Murray is excited "to be in such a rich drama with all sorts of twists and turns" and especially happy to be back at Irish Rep, where he has directed.
He was born of British parents in South Africa and from age eight worked professionally on stage and radio. He went to England at 18 to study, "but I took a repertory company job, which gave me my education."
Accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 60s, Murray was asked to join their 1964 world tour in honor of Shakespeare's quattrocentenary year. "It was the RSC's first time in the U.S. We did King Lear, directed by Peter Brook at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater -- the only time there's ever been a straight play there. It opened only two weeks before we did. We didn't have mikes, and the acoustics were dreadful!"
Murray, who's now a U.S. citizen, fell in love with New York. "I'd never known a place as exciting," he says. When the tour ended, he returned here and was cast in the Off Broadway hit The Knack, directed by Mike Nichols.
"I caught as much theater as possible," recalls Murray. "What impressed me was the passion, commitment and vitality of the actors. By comparison, English theater was laid back. It was considered bad form to get too intense, and I was intense. I found myself in a place where everyone was intense. I knew this was where I wanted to be."
In 1965, Murray made his Broadway debut, but soon after he was back in the U.K., "only to ruminate on coming back to America. It took three years."
But what a return! It was Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. "That was an extraordinary experience," Murray states.
He was nominated for a 1968 Tony for Featured Actor along with cast members Paul Hecht and John Wood. "We won the Tony (for Best Play) and became a cult hit. None of us realized it was going to be that popular, least of all our producer David Merrick, who only took the theater for three months."
One reason the show resonated so well with audiences, says Murray, "was because it was the 60s, and every kid who was possibly going to Vietnam identified with these two almost nameless, background people who are used by the government. We ran for a year."
Did the Tony nomination secure his future? "Yes," he replies. "Let's say, 'Of course, it did!'" he adds thoughtfully. "More than anything, it was the play and the incredible reviews."
Some highlights of his career as an actor are: Hugh Leonard's 1978 Tony-winning Best Play Da, in which he played Charlie, the son; Sleuth; Noises Off ; Off Broadway in Travels with My Aunt opposite Jim Dale; and the revival of The Entertainer with Jean Stapleton. He later had the opportunity to do Da again at Irish Rep, this time playing the title role.
"Noises Off was memorable," he notes, "because of its nature. Being farce, it wasn't considered as great to work on as Rosencrantz, but I'd put it right up there. It was a carefree time and so much fun to go to work every day. It's wonderful to be in a show that makes people giddy with laughter."
Murray says he would never want to be in a play he's directing because "you cannot have your ego get in the way of your concern for the actors. As director, you have to be their nurse, lover, daddy, all those things. An actor has to have an ego, but a director shouldn't not that sort of ego, anyway."