Medea in Brooklyn
New York magazine|January 20 - February 2, 2020
Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale would like you to please refer to them as “lovers.” Right now, they’re co-starring in an avant-garde take on a Greek tragedy at BAM.
Jackson McHenry

IN A BARE ROOM, Rose Byrne approaches Bobby Cannavale with a painting. It’s a gift that is also clearly a ploy to get back into his life. They talk about their kids and vaguely of her recovery from some kind of trauma. She pretends to be better, while he pretends there wasn’t something between them, though their history sizzles in the air. He’s seeing someone else now. She claims to be over it, yet she can’t help but bring it up. “This isn’t a good conversation,” he says. “It’s not the best, it’s not the worst,” she counters. It’s like watching them pick at a rash when they know they shouldn’t, until it inflames, pustulates, and then kills them.

Byrne, 40, and Cannavale, 49, are rehearsing the first scene in Simon Stone’s adaptation of Medea at bam. When the scene ends, Cannavale, as if to annotate his performance, tells Stone he was “thinking about the way sex is on the table” between the characters. “I feel as if it’s there,” Stone says. “And the sadness of it also not being possible.” Stone, who is directing, too, likes having them run through the scene in rehearsal to develop a sense of their characters’ shared past together.

Then Byrne and Cannavale go off to their home in Brooklyn and their own two kids, since they have a shared present together, too. Byrne, an Australian expat who, thanks to movies like Bridesmaids, has become more successful in comedy than as a dramatic actor, and Cannavale, a Cuban-Italian New York stage fixture who has become a recent favorite of Martin Scorsese’s—currently, he can be seen in The Irishman—started dating in 2012. (They met through mutual friends while Byrne was playing legal psychodrama across from Glenn Close in Damages.) It seemed like no big deal to go from dating to co-starring, and in 2014 they appeared in both the indie Adult Beginners (as a married couple) and a studio remake of Annie, though they disagree about which was filmed first. He says Annie, she says Adult Beginners. “We can’t even agree on this,” she deadpans, almost directly into my voice recorder. They followed those up with roles as villains in the 2015 comedy Spy.

Even when they don’t produce hits, their work tends to be critically acclaimed, which has resulted in the two actors occupying a place as a thinking fan’s celebrity couple, best known by people willing to pay for tickets to the theater or premium cable. They feel like a rustic Brooklyn answer to Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Manhattan theater, fashion, and screen combo, of a kind with fellow Brooklynites Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, or Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. Plus, Byrne and Cannavale have symbiotically complementary looks, with his hulking figure and brow and her petite poise and knowing rag-doll eyes. They can make it feel like “sex is on the table” immediately, even in a quiet rehearsal room.

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