Debra Messing Comes Full Circle with Broadway’s ‘Outside Mullingar’

Actress reunites with the collaborators from her first pro gig in New York for the new play by John Patrick Shanley

Debra Messing and Brian F. O'Byrne
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

“Outside Mullingar,” the new John Patrick Shanley play that opened Jan. 23 on Broadway, may be Debra Messsing‘s Main Stem debut. But it’s not the first time she’s worked with Manhattan Theater Club, the producer of “Mullingar.” It’s not even the first time she’s worked with Shanley.

The actress’ first professional job in New York was as an understudy in MTC’s 1993 production of Shanley’s “Four Dogs and a Bone.” Back then, Shanley knew a future TV star when he saw one.

“I remember we all went out one night after the show and he said to me, ‘Those people from the other coast, they’re going to come and take you away, and they won’t ever let you come back,'” Messing recalled at the opening night afterparty at Copacabana. “It feels really meaningful that things have come full circle like this.”

“Mullingar” is meaningful for Shanley, too. Many of the details from this story of rural Irish life come direct from his own Irish relatives, right down to the names of the characters and the two gates that are a major plot point. “When I visited Ireland with my father and heard the people on the farm talking, I couldn’t believe the gift of language they had,” Shanley said. “I felt very untalented.”

That Gaelic gift of the gab makes “Mullingar” particularly momentous for the Oscar-winning scribe of “Moonstruck.” “This was an important play for me, because I could write everything,” he said. “You can only write as much as your characters can talk, and I never had characters who could talk like this.”

Brian F. O’Byrne, the Irish thesp who costars with Messing, went so far as to seek out his character’s real counterpart in a small Irish farm town. It turned into a wild goose chase.

“I never found him, which I think is better,” he said. “But one of his neighbors from the town came to see the play, and he said, ‘Oh, the way you stand, it’s just like him!’ “