But another read changed his mind.
“The second time, I thought, ‘I want to do this tomorrow,'” he said. “It really grabbed me.”
“Impressionism” stars Irons as a photographer who comes to New York after a personal tragedy and falls into in a prickly friendship with a slightly neurotic art gallery owner, played by Joan Allen.
“And really it’s the process of how he heals and she sheds her emotional baggage so that by the time the end of the play comes, they’re ready for each other,” Irons said.
Irons’ long absence from the Broadway stage is in part because his last appearance, in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” was such a tough act to follow. That play — which starred Irons as a playwright struggling with two flawed marriages — nearly swept the 1984 Tony Awards. Irons collected a statue, as did director Mike Nichols and co-stars Glenn Close and Christine Baranski.
“It was a play that could have been written for me,” Irons said. “There was very much a fear that I don’t want to do something that isn’t as good as that experience. This was the first play that I thought, ‘Well, we have a chance.'”
Romantic comedy is not the most likely vehicle for Irons, who got his start in theater after training at the Bristol Old Vic.
“I am known for being sort of long, thin and morose,” he said in his distinctive and very British baritone on a recent evening before a preview performance.
After his breakout on-screen role in the 1981 British miniseries “Brideshead Revisited,” based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh, Irons has enjoyed a prolific film career that has been notable for roles that explore dark corners of the human psyche.
They include the icy murder suspect Claus von Bulow in “Reversal of Fortune,” which earned him an Academy Award; disturbed identical twins in David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers”; and the obsessed Humbert Humbert in an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” More recently, he won Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards for his role as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the 2005 miniseries “Elizabeth I,” which starred Helen Mirren.
The 60-year old actor, who hunts foxes by horseback when at home in Western Ireland, fished a cigarette from a saddlebag slung over the chair of his dressing room and perched on the sill of an open window to smoke. In a dusky rose button-down with a brown scarf wrapped around his throat, one could almost believe he had just dismounted outside the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
“Larger than life” is how O’Brien described Irons’ personality. “He’s witty, he’s seductive, he’s incredibly smart.”
“He has extreme energy when he comes to rehearsal,” said Allen, who won a Tony Award in 1988 for her performance in “Burn This.””He’s very focused and he’s very, very bright.”
Coincidentally, this is Irons’ second project with Allen in recent months. After both actors had signed on for “Impressionism,” Irons was cast opposite Allen in a biopic about Georgia O’Keeffe that will air on Lifetime Television later this year.
Irons played O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who had a tumultuous relationship with the painter.
The movie was filmed in the last months of 2008, almost immediately before rehearsals began for “Impressionism” in New York. Allen and Irons had never worked together, so the prospect of two back-to-back projects stirred some anxiety in the actors and O’Brien.
“I thought, ‘What if it ignites? What happens if they loathe one another? What in the world am I going to do?'” O’Brien recalled.
“I think everybody was a little bit nervous,” Irons said. “But in fact we got on very well.”
Both Irons and Allen attributed their chemistry onstage to their differing personalities, specifically the contrast of Allen’s all-American candor with Irons’ dry British wit. Their differences extend to rehearsals, where Allen said she tends to focus on her own performance, while Irons enjoys getting a hand in all facets of the production.
“I’m interested in where the lights go, why that piece of music is chosen. And I always have opinions and I’ve never stopped myself putting them forward,” Irons said.
He acknowledged that his outspokenness may — on occasion — rub his directors and co-stars the wrong way. “It’s very different from how (Allen) works,” Irons said. “I always have to say to her, ‘I’m sorry, I think I’m probably driving my tank onto your lawn.'”
For her part, Allen said Irons has “wonderful ideas,” while O’Brien acknowledged that his assertiveness may threaten a less confident director.
“He’s really smart,” O’Brien said, “and he has enormous passion for the work and for getting it right. So if you are insecure or defensive, he’s not your boy. Fortunately, I’m neither.”
Not surprisingly, Irons said he would like to do more directing himself and hopes to start filming a small movie set in Ireland later this year. As for movie acting, Irons said he has also grown weary of the long process of promoting films, with the required press junkets and red carpet appearances.
“I think also as you get older — because movies are really a young man’s business — there are less interesting roles,” Irons added. “But there are some great roles waiting to be played in the theater.”
He expects, however, to focus his stage work in London, were he starred last year in Howard Brenton’s “Never So Good” at the National Theatre.
For now, he’s grateful to have shared a brief period in New York with his wife, actress Sinead Cusack, who is now on tour after appearing in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this winter. The couple has two grown sons — Samuel, a photographer, and Max, an actor.
Between jobs, Irons’ home is Western Ireland. Besides hunting, Irons sails, plays his guitar and has recently learned the Irish fiddle.
“I’ve never liked working for work’s sake,” Irons said. “I’m not one of these actors who has to keep working the whole time just to feel fulfilled. I have lots of other things I love doing.”