Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale Buckle Up for Medea

“What was tough was convincing Rose that we should go to the theatre every night and kill our two sons.”

These are words you don’t expect to hear from most parents, but actor Bobby Cannavale is saying them, explaining the process of convincing his costar Rose Byrne to sign up for their latest onstage project, Medea. Cannavale admits, “It took a minute.”

The reasons to do Medea — running January 12 through February 23, 2020, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) — were numerous for the two performers. Both are well-known for varied successful film choices that include Bridesmaids, Damages, and the upcoming Mrs. America (her) and Homecoming and the upcoming Oscar contender The Irishman (him). And chief on the “pro” list: the chance to work with Simon Stone, the ultrabuzzy theater director whose adaptation of Yerma, starring Billie Piper at the Park Avenue Armory last year, was a critically hailed hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

But there was one major reason for hesitation. Medea is, of course, Euripides’s 2,500-year-old tragedy in which a woman murders her two children. And Byrne and Cannavale are a real-life couple — with two young kids of their own.

“As a mother myself, I found it very confronting to read, and very upsetting,” Byrne says. “My first question was, ‘How do I do this?’”

So she met with Stone and talked through his adaptation, which incorporates elements of the case of Debora Green, the Kansas doctor who killed her two children in 1995. “It’s such a monumental undertaking that I don’t want to talk about it too much,” Byrne says of her role. “But Simon has done a very contemporary retelling that is quite brilliant in bringing this iconic story to audiences now. There are probably so many reasons not to do something like this, but I also think it’s really important. No risk, no reward.”

The casting was the brainchild of David Binder, the Tony Award–winning Broadway producer (Network, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) who recently became artistic director of BAM. At a gala for the institution last year, Cannavale, a seasoned theater actor (The Lifespan of a Fact, The Hairy Ape), mentioned to Binder that he and Byrne, who starred on Broadway in You Can’t Take It With You in 2014, were looking for a play to do together.

At the time, Binder was already plotting to stage the English-language premiere of Medea after its original Dutch-language Internationaal Theatre Amsterdam production. The artistic director just put two and two together.

“Simon Stone is one of the world’s great new young directors,” Binder says. “He’s bold, and he’s definitely brave. He takes risks. He creates real theatrical magic. And the casting of Rose and Bobby, who are so loved in everything they do, and of course the incredible Dylan Baker as well, will draw the widest possible audience — maybe even Broadway audiences that have never been to BAM.”

Byrne and Stone, both Australians, already knew each other from their roots Down Under. “Simon’s carved out a terrific and pretty radical name for himself back home, and it’s been brilliant to see him just go from strength to strength,” Byrne says.

Cannavale, meanwhile, was eager to work with the director after seeing his staging of Yerma. “I was blown away by it, both by the acting and the staging,” he remembers. “It gave me that visceral thrill that I’m always looking for in the theater, and that I don’t always get.”

Besides, the commute couldn’t be better. Cannavale and Byrne, both making their BAM debuts, live in Brooklyn not far from the institution’s Harvey Theater, where they’ll be performing. “It’s 12 minutes from our house,” Byrne notes with a laugh. “That is kind of brilliant!”

With rehearsals still a few months away, neither actor knows quite what to expect. “Simon’s work just feels so spontaneous — I’m interested to see how he achieves that in the rehearsal room,” Cannavale says. “What’s going to happen? It’s terrifying.”

Also an open question? Just how, after each performance, Byrne and Cannavale will manage to shake off the harrowing tragedy and return to happy family life.

Byrne anticipates their real-life children will keep them grounded. “We have two kids, and they won’t care that we’re run-down and emotionally exhausted,” she says, laughing. “There’s not too much I can really drag around with me when I’ve got a screaming 2-year-old!”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg.

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